Artists Let Loose on New York’s Water Tanks

This summer, Jeff Koons, Catherine Opie, Carrie Mae Weems, and others will transform New York's water tanks into works of art

New York City is awash in water tanks. Thousands of them perch on rooftops throughout the five boroughs, and now around 100 of the distinctive wooden barrels are being transformed into temporary canvases for a public art initiative. The Water Tank Project asked dozens of artists, including John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, Catherine Opie, Carrie Mae Weems, and Andy Goldsworthy, to create water-themed works on the tanks, which are meant to change the way people look at water consumption.

“Water is our most challenged but taken-for-granted resource. It’s all around us but virtually invisible,” says Neville Wakefield, a member of the project’s curatorial team. “By drawing attention to the water tanks, we hope to alert the world to the wastage of our most precious commodity.”

Bronx-born filmmaker, artist, and activist Mary Jordan came up with the idea for the project while making an ethnographic film in Ethiopia. “I observed the people there fighting this constant, daily battle for water,” she says. “Back in New York, I came to see the water tank as a heroic figure—it’s like an altar up in the sky. They’re icons that everybody knows, and yet they’ve never been used for something creative.”

Jordan and curator Bettina S. Bryant tapped some well-connected collaborators such as Wakefield and philanthropists Agnes Gund and Toby Devan Lewis to secure participation from artists ranging from Derrick Adams to Yoko Ono to the stencil-art duo ICY and SOT. Some of the tanks will showcase student works selected from a competition conducted in partnership with Studio in a School, which brings artists into New York City classrooms.

Renderings of contributions to the Water Tank Project by ICY and SOT. ©2014 ICY and SOT

Renderings of contributions to the Water Tank Project by ICY and SOT.

©2014 ICY and SOT

“Aside from a few city guidelines that prohibit things like profanity and nudity in a public space, we’ve allowed the artists to be free in their interpretation,” says Bryant. “Some artists have reacted to the commission in a very humorous way. Others have done things that are deeply moving, with stark images that really get you to think about the plight that a lot of people do suffer.”

The organizers are keeping details of the designs under wraps until the works begin to pop up around the city next month. An app will offer a virtual tour of the tanks and encourage users to reduce their water usage. The tricked-out tanks are scheduled to remain on view through September. Adds Wakefield, “The biggest challenge is getting people to look up.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 15 under the title “Think Tanks.”

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