The ebb and flow of life is distilled in Museum of Water, Sharrocks’ collection of messages in bottles with a grandiose name but a back-to-basics approach to museology. ‘It is a process of just slowly and gently meeting as many people as possible, a way of exploring,’ says the PIAF 2017 Artist-in-Residence.
‘This piece isn’t about me coming in with a lot of bottles and saying, ‘Look what I’ve got’. It’s about us all being here together and going, ‘What can we make together?’’
Sharrocks recently wrapped up a week-long series of site visits around Perth and the Great Southern, where she will return over Festival time in February and March. She also will bring her three young children with her from the UK. They will go to school in Perth, immersing themselves into the community as their mother dives into vessels of water and the stories of the many water-bearers she hopes to meet while she is here.
Her museum is paradoxically both simple and as complex and unfathomable as the currents of the ocean itself.
The people of WA are at once the subjects, contributors, curators and audience for the collection to be assembled over the next two years before being given to the Western Australian Museum.
Sharrocks’ call to action is for us to think about what water means to us here on the western edge of this island continent of flooding rains and drought-stricken plains. We are all physically and emotionally made of water. It is elemental to our survival and central to our rituals of leisure, culture and domesticity.
At collection centres across the Festival, Sharrocks asks us to bring a bottle of any kind and to share the story of why its contents mean something to us. It can be a hydraulic story-telling machine, she says.
Under the microscope of the curiosity and empathy of Sharrocks and her local Museum of Water Custodians, the bottles will be teeming with memories waiting to be poured out. ‘We remember what you tell us and we pass it on. What you say gets recorded and passed on with the collection.’
It could be the water from the bedside table after a night full of dreams, the tears of joy from a new father, the water from a pot of boiled potatoes on a family holiday, a lifelong surfer’s favourite reef break, the childish splashing from a muddy puddle – or even an empty bottle filled with the metaphoric scoops of cloud gathered during the flight to an exotic honeymoon destination.
‘Museums sometime say we are the authority,’ Sharrocks says. ‘This is a really different kind of museum. This is a museum where everybody is the donor. Everybody is the artist and curator. You choose what goes in your bottle. You decide what is right for you. You are the authority.’
‘That offers a whole different relationship with knowledge and with power structures generally. It feels good for people to be in that position rather than being the listener and the visitor or the audience. You are the director of the Museum of Water.’
For Sharrocks, the Museum of Water is the essence of life itself. The simple molecular miracle of H2O literally buoyed her up when she was pregnant ‘and feeling a being swimming inside you and thinking that is the natural way of things. I am really amazed by the lure of water. I feel it is something physical, the cells in our body responding to the molecules of water in the sea.’
The Museum of Water is the latest in a line of works by Sharrocks that use water to encourage social interaction and explore our sense of place. In 2007’s SWIM, she invited 50 people to swim across London from Tooting Bec Lido to Hampstead Ponds. In 2009 her touring show drift encouraged people to drift, one at a time, across swimming pools on an inflatable boat.
This museum began life in London’s Soho as a commission by the Artakt and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to celebrate the 200th birthday of John Snow. He was the doctor who painstakingly mapped out the spread of cholera in London in 1854, leading to better water hygiene and the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Snow’s expeditions across London are echoed by the new journeys of people who have gathered water for Sharrocks’ museum, adding to the story of the water there and now here in Western Australia. ‘It is a mapping of our days lived with water,’ Sharrocks says. ‘It invites people to share with us the experience of their days.’
Water is present in our deepest sadness, our greatest pleasure and our everyday normality.
‘As someone said, it is life and death and washing up – and all the things in between. Come and talk to us and tell us why it matters to you.’
‘It is a bit like me standing on a street corner hawking my wares. Roll up, roll up. What have you got Perth? What have you got Albany? Tell me what you care about.’