Inventing Art For Taking In Water

 Olafur Eliasson

Weather makes a potent subject for artists, from Turner’s watercolours to the work of conceptual artists. The Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson’s installation in Tate Modern’s turbine hall, attracted a record two million visitors in 2003/4.

Given the starting point for Taking In Water I knew weather had to feature in the artwork that my characters, Luc and Layla, would make together. In imagining their work, I wanted to avoid anything over-Romantic. Since the post-war break from traditional painting and sculpture is something I’ve explored in non-fiction writing and in curating, I decided to go back to the moment when new ways of working as an artist were beginning to emerge.

For many artists in the Sixties mass-media became their subject matter. With the Luc character I wanted someone who was paying attention to both directions – the natural world and the manufactured.

It was around then that Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight changed our view of the world; Earth was seen for the first time as a planet orbiting in space, mainly composed of water. Gagarin’s mission contains both senses of the sublime – to be in awe of nature and the awesomeness of space technology. Luc, I figured, would want to explore the conflicted relationships between the natural world, technology and the human body at a conceptual level. Lydia, on the other hand, would live out the effects of a personal encounter with natural forces that had overwhelmed her. Her understanding would be much deeper. Lydia, as Layla, provided the emotional context for the work.

Finding a form for the book that linked the 1960s with 2002, when the novel is set, came from work I have done interviewing artists for the Artists’ Lives project in the British Library’s National Sound Archive.

Going back to the Sixties made sense for other reasons. Given Lydia’s tragedy – having lost her family in the flood of 1953 – it was very likely that her teenage years in the 1960s would be turbulent. And, the Sixties was a decade in which visual artists became celebrities. I also wanted to look at fame as a kind of deluge that swamped Lydia for a second time. What had it been like for the two artists to suddenly find they were a media spectacle?

And finally, the exciting thing about inventing a work of art for fiction is that, though you need to enable the reader to envisage the artwork you don’t have to make the piece.

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