by Macy Ryan
If you’ve run on Lady Bird Lake lately, you may think you’ve seen a ghost out on the water. And you have. Replete with personification, a dead white ghost tree floats above the lake between the Pfluger Bridge and the Lamar Bridge, while 14,000 Tibetan prayer flags wave in the wind across Pfluger Bridge, to the 1st Street Bridge, and back. Praying for life? Hoping against death? Asking for help?
THIRST, the collaborative, site-specific temporary installation on Lady Bird Lake, is not just a question, or even a statement, but a prayer and a plea. And not just to the Universe, to God, or to Mother Nature, but to all of us.
As city dwellers, we may not be presented with such an up close and personal view of the great Texas drought of 2011; this is exactly why Lady Bird Lake was chosen for the installation site. Not only is it the heart of Austin; it also maintains a constant water level and has a beautiful greenbelt surrounding it, making it precisely the place where the urgency of the water crisis is forgotten. With THIRST, our observation is undeniable. It is as if those who love nature and the Austin environs the most are being handed the problem, much like an orphan being left on a caring family’s doorstep. THIS. NOW. YOU. HELP. And they would have those who listen haunted by this tree ghost and praying with the prayer flags for a solution – or better, praying that we have the insight to contribute to the solution ourselves.
Perhaps THIRST is even beyond a prayer and plea; it is a public outcry.
THIRST began with an invitation from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to Women & Their Work Gallery to apply for a grant for an art project in the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg, which would emphasize collaboration, innovation and fearlessness. “I asked a number of artists and organizations to consider collaborating with Women & Their Work to develop a project we could submit to the foundation. Emily Little and Norma Yancey (Clayton & Little Architects) and I discussed what was the most pressing issue facing Austin, and we decided it was the water crisis. I then asked Beili Liu (visual artist) and Cassie Bergstrom (landscape architecture) to collaborate with us, and THIRST became an idea that, after more vetting from the Foundation, became a reality,” says Chris Cowden, Executive Director of Women & Their Work.
From start to finish, THIRST took 18 months to complete. One of the most challenging components included the city approval and permitting process, a journey that was shepherded by Little. She also oversaw the erection of the tree in the middle of the lake, while Liu helped shape the visual elements of the installation – the white ghostliness of the tree, and the prayer flags. The iconic tree appears to hover over the lake, floating like a ghost; the roots reach, but cannot touch, the water. The tree represents the 300 million trees lost in the 2011 drought – a haunting reminder of our plaguing water crisis. “The tree is at the core of the THIRST project and provides stark contrast between our loss and our precious resources,” says Liu. “The prayer flags component of THIRST borrows from the physical form, and cultural and spiritual reference of Tibetan prayer flags, which are often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside, people and their lives. The color white also signifies water in Tibetan prayer flag tradition.”
The water crisis is a problem that will only begin to improve with public consciousness, public attention, public action and public demand.
Cowden, Little and Liu maintain that THIRST would not have been possible without the cross- disciplinary collaboration of the team. It took the expertise from multiple fields to overcome the roadblocks and fulfill the artistic vision of this public art piece, allowing THIRST to realize its destiny as a truly dynamic, game-changing experience to behold. “Because we were a team, we had a number of minds at the table, and there were so many more resources available to us as we tackled difficult problems. The different areas of expertise allowed us to create this very complex installation. As a group, we could imagine creating something really big; I don’t think any of us could have done it alone,” says Cowden.
It is not art merely commenting on a certain perspective of existence and asking for understanding; it is art with a call to action.
At its very core, THIRST raises awareness of the 2011 drought, shocking most with its 300-million- trees-lost statistic. Perhaps THIRST is even beyond a prayer and plea; it is a public outcry. It identifies the water crisis as the number one environmental issue facing Texas – an issue that is not going away, that is not getting fixed, that is left to linger in the wind, much like the ghost tree and the prayer flags. The water crisis is a problem that will only begin to improve with public consciousness, public attention, public action and public demand. “We have to conserve water to sustain our way of life in Austin. We all know that water is central to life. But up until recently, most of us had taken water, and its constant availability, for granted. THIRST … reminds us that we must re-assess our relationship to water and change our habits,” Cowden explains. In this way, THIRST identifies itself as activist art. It is not art merely commenting on a certain perspective of existence and asking for understanding; it is art with a call to action. When other outlets are exhausted, art is the medium and vehicle for a movement. “Art can touch us in ways that words do not. We strive for change at all levels using all messaging possible,” says Little.
The team behind THIRST contends that it stands as a beacon for the community; just as it brought the collaborative team together, so it will hopefully bring the community together and elicit dialogue about the millions of trees that have died and are continuing to die. We can no longer have the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. We cannot be dumb, be blind and be ignorant. THIRST is here. It calls to us and yearns for our help. It is TIME. “We are already hearing of the profound, gut-level impact the tree and prayer flags are having on viewers, from all walks of life,” says Little. “I have seen individuals moved to tears immediately upon seeing the tree … I can hope we respond on an individual basis to the need to conserve water, and on a larger scale to educate ourselves on the pending legislation and necessary large-scale steps required to understand what is coming and how to deal with a dramatic reduction in our water supply.” THIRST represents the hope that no more ghost trees haunt us, that no more messages come from the dead, that those already lost can be assured we will learn and act – and they can rest in peace.