Group exhibition at Kunsthal Mechelen explores the fountain as an artistic object
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Group exhibition at Kunsthal Mechelen explores the fountain as an artistic object
Sunday Fantasy Still.

MECHELEN.- Fountains are structures that control the movement and cycle of water, an element essential to our survival and considered sacred in many religions. We are surrounded by mundane structures that move water, often hidden from sight: pumps, pipes and sewage systems. A fountain, by contrast, is visible and exuberant: it can stimulate, delight, and stir the erotic. The artists of this exhibition approach the rich subject matter of the fountain according to their individual artistic affinities, formulating ideas about politics, culture, and art itself. The fountain becomes a space to transform dreams and desires into a dripping, spattering, sparkling form.

Fountains have been created for pleasure since ancient times, across civilisations and cultures. The Ancient Romans venerated water and took pleasure in its appearance and movement through an unseen power. The Persian rulers of the Middle Ages built elaborate fountains in their palaces and gardens to represent paradise as described in the Qu’ran. Shishi-odoshi were invented in Japan to scare away animals from crops and have now become decorative fixtures of Japanese gardens. King Louis XIV of France employed fountains at Versailles as a visual representation of his dominance over nature. In the 19th century, fountains became part of civic infrastructures, providing clean drinking water to urban populations and thereby becoming important meeting places – akin to the contemporary cliché of the office water cooler where news and gossip is spread. Today, fountains mostly serve a decorative purpose, but remain as fixtures of public spaces and private gardens.

One could say that conceptual art started with Marcel Duchamp’s creation of the most famous ‘fountain’ in Western art history, the readymade urinal (1917). The work, simply titled Fountain, toyed with the art historical symbolism of the decorative fountain and overturned previous ideas of what can constitute an art object. The works gathered in “The Fountain Show” refer to the long lineage of fountains that have been depicted or designed by artists and asks what the fountain stands for today.

Works & artists in the show

• Chloé op de Beeck’s (°1986, Belgium) video work However (2019) anchors “The Fountain Show” in Mechelen. It captures a public fountain on the Schuttersvest street at the precise minute it begins to spray water in the early morning, a small euphoric moment. This fountain used to mark the entrance of the city and has since been decommissioned.

• Virginia Overton’s (°1971, US) sculpture Untitled (cascade) (2020) uses cut-up, deconstructed signage from corporate buildings in the USA as water basins for a cascading fountain supported by industrial ladders and sandbags. The roughness of Overton’s industrial materials contrasts with the natural elegance of the flowing water, revealing the inherent properties of each component.

• Aline Bouvy’s (°1974, Belgium) urinal sculpture, which blends into the architecture of the exhibition space, turns our attention to the aesthetic potential of the urinal, a frequently overlooked aspect of Duchamp’s Fountain. Bouvy’s work questions the differentiation between art, design, and decoration. She also provokes the audience to question which bodily functions – and whose – are permissible in public space, opening up a feminist perspective on Duchamp’s provocation. In her lecture-performance Fontaine, je ne boirai pas de ton eau, which forms part of the public programme of the exhibition, the artist examines the history of the public urinal in Paris.

• For her series Frottage, Sophie Nys (°1974, Belgium) also takes a cue from Duchamp. These works on paper bear embossings of the basin of a modernist drinking fountain designed by Alfred Aebersold and found all over the city of Zurich. Built in the 1970s in the context of the Cold War, this network of fountains is in fact a defence instrument that would provide clean drinking water to the population in the event that the regular water supply becomes contaminated. The fountains are like secret agents, evidence of a latent threat hidden in plain sight. Nys further personifies them by marking each print with the urine of a colleague or friend.

• As a structure that shapes and makes audible the flow of liquid matter – and can mask the sound of a private conversation – the fountain also bears a close relationship to language and speech. Kasia Fudakowski’s (°1985, UK) Watch what you say (2019-24) is a speech-activated fountain. It forms part of a thought experiment where the artist imagines a direct correlation between the rising sea levels and the number of words that we speak each day – and in consequence a global limit on the amount of permitted spoken words. If you speak into the microphone, water will drip into the bucket, threatening to overflow. The fountain here becomes a way to link social and ecological realities, using a bleak kind of humour to implicate each of us within them.

• Lou Masduraud (°1990, France) similarly positions the fountain as an inherently political object. Her monumental work Fontaines (I-VIII) (2023) connects the politics of public space to the functions of the human body. It is modeled after the Cento Fontane in Rome and consists of eight bronze panels each bearing a disembodied mouth that leaks water. The panels are decorated with floral drawings made using pickle slices, their vinegar leaving traces on the bronze through oxidation. Masduraud refers to urination as the fountain’s ‘hidden opposite’ to complicate contrasts between public and private, cleanliness and purity.

• Zoe Williams (°1983, UK) hones in on the erotic suggestion of the fountain through her ceramic sculptures. Architectures of fantasy, their shapes and textures suggest lubricated, pleasurable release. Her film Sunday Fantasy (2019) positions another vessel as a conduit for intimate fantasies. The artist asked friends to each write a script connecting a deep desire of theirs to a shell-shaped perfume bottle. Williams endows her objects with magical powers, building a world of heightened sexuality that centres female and queer experiences.

• For Jay Tan (°1982, UK), the fountain is also a site of projected fantasy. She embraces pop cultural references and gaudy aesthetics to create imaginary worlds for her own and the viewers’ enjoyment. In her work Soap Berries at Scholar’s Rock (2021), a writing desk is turned into a diorama featuring a mechanical waterfall that visitors can activate. This paradisiac landscape is inhabited by female clay figurines washing their hair, riding a motorcycle, climbing, or copulating. By mixing high and low art forms and their associations, Tan subverts the art historical tradition of the fountain and gets to the heart of the ambiguity it carries as an object that can be decorative or avant-garde, monumental or domestic, functional or frivolous – or everything at once.

• David Bernstein’s (°1988, US) Hammamas Boy (2019) is inspired by the structure and the tradition of the Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath conventionally built directly into the ground. Its use is closely linked to moments of transition: menstruation, childbirth, marriage. Hammamas Boy also refers to other bathing traditions that ritualise purification, such as Turkish hammams or Japanese baths. Bernstein’s mikvah is a portable wooden tub engraved with poems written by the artists’ mother and grandmother who share a love of baths, filled with transparent plastic balls. Visitors are invited to enter the ball bath and emerge back into the world with a sense of renewal.

• Anita Esfandiari’s (°1985, Iran) practice stems from her long-standing fascination with fountains.In her home country of Iran, they have historically carried great significance as gathering places and are now largely neglected as the government curtails public freedoms. Gave to the cypress a rosy shade of the redbud; and to the tulip gave the stature of a bambuseae (2023) is made of twelve panels arranged to form a tall cylindrical shape. The structure is painted from the inside and rotates continuously, offering the viewer an obstructed view of a tableau based on the Persian epic Haft Peykar, re-interpreted through a contemporary feminist lens. Esfandiari turns the fountain into a vehicle for storytelling.

• Three paintings by Paula Siebra (°1998, Brasil) depict three different aspects of fountains: as decoration, utility, or natural source. Siebra departs from the culture of the Brazilian Northeast, incorporating aesthetics of native folk art in her works while also referring to the canonical painting genres of still life and landscape. She is drawn to archetypes: objects that are recognizable everywhere and by everyone. While firmly rooted in the simplicity of everyday life, the soft contours and washed-out colors of her paintings give them a dream-like, magical quality. Siebra positions the fountain as a timeless motif: a symbol of life, truth and change.

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