Down by the water: Exploring ‘WaterLand’

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Tucked away in the Mission District, the small but impressionable Carte Blanche Gallery is surrounded by hip bars and trendy restaurants. But its current exhibit distances itself from San Francisco’s nightlife and focuses on a natural element we all need to survive — water.

The exhibit, titled “WaterLand,” is centered on Bay Area-based photographer Donna Wan. Wan, who grew up in Taiwan and New York, was interested in the relationship between people and water, and her photographs explore this connection.

“I do not intend for my work to make a didactic political statement,” she told me at the exhibit’s opening reception. “It would be superfluous for me to say, ‘Look, this is another way in which we have ruined the environment.’”

Her series of photographs include water’s contact with the human world. Images feature figures’ backs as they look out at a body of water or their streamlined forms as they cliff jump into sea-green pools. The tranquil beauty associated with not only the landscapes, but also the anonymity of the figures is striking.

“Whether it is because of a particular subject matter, a certain beauty or a peculiar aspect of my work, I want viewers to remember my work — consciously or not — after they have walked away,” said Wan. The viewers do just this. The images are simple, yet unforgettable, reminding one that water is a source for comfort and contemplation as much as it is a source for life itself.

One of the most striking photographs, “In and by the River,” is one of children jumping into a pond. One can almost hear the shouts of delight echoing off the rocks, though this sense of joy is conveyed not through facial expressions, but through the water’s presence. It is interesting to note while looking at this photograph in particular that Wan is not a big swimmer herself.

“The funny thing is that I can barely swim and am afraid of being in open water, so I am … viscerally frightened of [water] as well,” she says. “I think that is why I like to photograph people in or near water — to vicariously experience what I am afraid to do myself.”

Wonder as much as fear influences Wan’s photography. She cites standing in front of the ocean as a mesmerizing experience: “I have this inexplicable feeling that ‘This is what thought looks like.’ I know this does not make much sense to anyone but myself.”

There is an element of grandeur within Wan’s photographs as well. “Untitled (Tsim Sha Tsui)” depicts menacing clouds and the bay outside the urban area of Kowloon, Hong Kong. What sets this photograph apart from the rest of Wan’s images is the presence of the sun — an orange ball of fire portrayed in the sky and in the reflection of the water. This produces an almost-Impressionistic feel within the photograph; it can perhaps be likened to Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise.”

Though Wan does say that she is not necessarily making a political statement, it is impossible to look at her photographs and not think of our growing consumer culture, environmental concerns and their effects on the world’s water supply. She acknowledges this, saying that she is still a realist and understands that whether she means it to or not, her work that has to do with nature is intrinsically political.

Wan’s photographs force viewers to think about the role that water plays in nature and in the human realm. These images depict what is at stake in our developing capitalistic society: water’s ability to produce terror, astonishment and peace.

Contact Addy Bhasin at [email protected].