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Why Would Someone Open a Water Bar in Sydney?

Dive in to Sydney's new aquatic pop-up with artist Janet Laurence.
By Tom Clift
February 17, 2016
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By Tom Clift
February 17, 2016
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Sydney's got a brand new pop-up bar — but it's a little bit different to the ones we're used to. It's not a whisky bar or a wine bar, or a craft beer hole-in-the wall. Nope, this bar's poison of choice is water.

An installation art piece in the Paddington Reservoir Gardens, the H2O: Water Bar resembles something between a laboratory and a speakeasy. The work consists of various flasks of water collected from different spots along the east coast, which will be served up to visitors to sample. In tasting the subtle differences between each type of water, visitors are asked to consider its importance and fragility, lest we continue to squander our planet's most important natural resource.

The bar is the brainchild of Janet Laurence, an acclaimed local artist whose work often intersects with the natural world and humanity's relationship to it. Having exhibited her art everywhere from London to Tokyo to the recent global climate summit in Paris, Laurence hopes that her new work "will make people realise that water is a real treasure".

As the H2O: Water Bar opens up to Sydneysiders for the first time, we spoke with Laurence about the origins of the project, the relationship between art and politics, and how water can be a lot like wine.

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Janet Laurence and her buddy, Muddy.

Where did the idea for the H2O: Water Bar come from?

"Well, funnily enough, it came from seeing inside the Paddington Reservoir, when it was being renovated years ago. I was captivated by this beautiful space, and I just thought that we had to have a water artwork in here of some sort. I have in the past done some works using water. I did a big piece for the Olympic site that was all about water chemistry, and I did a piece that emulates the hydrology of the CH2 [Council House 2] building in Melbourne. And they were both very research-based works about water. So you develop this knowledge and it becomes part of your language, so every work is more researched, and develops a bit further."

What are you interested in exploring through your work with water?

"My area of interest in my art has always been our relationship to the natural environment. Which is quite broad. It can take us into really focusing on particularly fragile or extinct species, right through to more atmospheric things — things like water. It's about trying to create an immersive installation that will bring the audience in to recognising that there are issues to be considered. At the same time, it's an aesthetic experience. It's not a purely didactic thing."

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What should people expect when they visit the bar?

"Firstly, the visitors are going to be brought into the most beautiful space. People often see the park above, but they don't realise that underneath is this magnificent reservoir that has been restored into this magical inside-outside garden. So they have to walk through this to arrive at the inner chamber, which is this very solid structure, and at the end they'll see a very fragile treasure chest of all the flasks housing water. These will then be offered to [visitors] by water bearers — or 'water conductors' as I'm calling them — who will walk around [with] all these different waters in test tubes.

It's sort of like, if you go for a wine tasting or a cheese tasting, you're not going to sit there and drink down gallons of wine. It's about tasting and sampling and trying to experience different tastes of water according to where it's from, and questioning why it tastes different...at a time in the world when water is becoming so precious, we really have to think about all of these things."

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So, we have to ask, it really is possible to distinguish between the waters by their taste?

"In actual fact, you can. You probably notice yourself when you travel how different water tastes in all the different places that you go. But we don't know how to talk about that elemental aspect of it...the difference in the rock they've passed through, how long water takes to reach a place. All of these things we don't consider."

What do you hope visitors will take away from their visit to the H2O: Water Bar?

"What I hope the whole project will do is make people realise that water is a real treasure...these waters connect us to the earth, and I think that's really important. Especially in a country like Australia. Indigenous people have always treated water as sacred and precious, whereas we've been so indulgent with it, and wasteful, and think it'll never end. I'm very much interested in art having a voice in those issues, because artists can speak about things in a way that politicians and scientists often can't.

H2O: Water Bar will run at Padding Reservoir Gardens until Sunday, February 28. For more information on the pop-up, visit their website.

Images courtesy of City of Sydney. Photography by Nikki To. 

Published on February 17, 2016 by Tom Clift
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