Surface Tension: Torah, Water & Communal Consciousness
August 12, 2012 at 12:08 am, by Tzafrir Barzilay
“The words of the Torah are likened to water: Just as water stretches from one end of the world to the other, so does the Torah extend from one end of the world to the other” (Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabah 1, 19).
The exhibition “Surface Tension: The future of water” at Eyebeam gallery in Chelsea is a joint project created by visual artists and scientists, aimed at presenting the significance of water in our world. Visually, water is simply beautiful. As anyone who has watched a spring flowing or even a whirlpool in a bathroom sink knows, there are endless shapes and sounds that water can create. Many of the artists in the exhibition use these qualities of water to create inspiring art and dynamic images.
A magnificent example is BIT.FALL by Julius Popp, a waterfall of words, created by a computer system that releases drops of water which print out words from the stream of the internet. Another mesmerizing piece was Event Horizon, by Petroc Sesti, a sculpture in which a vortex seems to have been captured and suspended in a glass bell.
Still, I think that the most interesting part of the exhibition was the scientific perspective on water. Many of the pieces focused on the shortage of water in the modern world, the environmental price of supplying fresh water to every home, and the social implication of water pollution and waste. A clear common message resonates through these pieces: Water is a public resource. It has to be managed and protected by the community, for the benefit of all its members. Water management is not only an issue for engineers and scientist, but also for leaders, economists, social activists and artists.
Water carries a major ritual importance in Judaism, as well as in other religions. The washing of the hands or the body represent not only physical cleansing, but also spiritual purification. Water also has great symbolic meaning: in a series of exegetical images in Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabah it is compared with the Torah, and also with life itself. But what should one learn from these images? Are they simply literary analogies, or do they carry some practical message about Jewish life?
It seems that the author of the Midrash suggests that like water, knowledge is a public resource: “Just as a great man is not embarrassed to ask a youngster “let me drink some water”, so when it comes to words of Torah, a great man should not be embarrassed to say to a youngster: “teach me one chapter, one thing, one verse, or even one letter.” Like water, knowledge is the property of the entire community, whether a person is weak or powerful.
It is interesting to think of the installation BIT.FALL in light of this idea – in the installation, the water absorbs ideas from the collective consciousness of the internet, transforming it bit by bit into drops of water and broadcasting it for all to see. Everyone has the right, and even obligation, to ask for knowledge and share it with others.
In some cases, people in the lower class of society have knowledge that leaders need in order to make the right decisions for the common good, and this knowledge should be made public. If any of the sprinklers creating drops of water in BIT.FALL were faulty, the words could not be read – every drop, like every piece of information, is meaningful and vital. The availability of knowledge to every member of the community is a common interest that benefits all of the public. In short, knowledge, like water, is not private property, but a communal asset.
Tzafrir Barzilay is a PhD student at Columbia University and studies the importance of water sources in Jewish and Christian Medieval culture. He lives with his wife in New York City.