Water is a scarce, natural resource that plays a critical role in the destiny of humanity as well as all living flora and fauna. Today, water quality and accessibility is one of the most important issues facing our planet. Dependence on natural water sources such as rivers, aquifers, and wells is being tested daily and we search for new innovative solutions to provide water to meet our most basic human requirement. As we look to the future, the privatization of our water resources seems inevitable but troubling. Historically, it was the import of water that grew the Southwest and it will be water that will decide our destiny.
My photographs and installation works develop from my continued explorations into the meanings, mythologies and metaphors associated with water—the ‘universal solve(nt)’. Many say that I am obsessed with water. I say, how can I not be? I live in the desert. I need water to survive.
The idea for my photographic project Western Waters developed while I was researching the bottled water industry in 1998 for my NEA funded installation, “Watershed.” While web browsing the word “watershed,” I found a business named “Water Shed” located in Palmdale, California. Of course I was curious, so I got in my car and drove an hour and a half northwest to see what this business was. There I found a retail water store in a strip mall, selling reverse osmosis purified water from tap to bottle. Further inquiry and research lead to my awareness of the growing business of retail water stores throughout the southwestern United States. I was drawn to this subject because of the apparent necessity yet absurdity of these stores and the way these venues seek to represent the source of a natural experience. Of course, these stores are merely an entrepreneurial enterprise—a constructed site to provide the consumer with the most essential requirement for life and survival. Today, plastic bottles replace earthen vessels and polluting automobiles carry us to and from this fabricated representation of a river, well, or spring to fetch our water. Western Waters addresses the commodification of nature, water as consumer product, and human desire—a never-ending thirst.
I used the Internet yellow pages to locate stores throughout the Southwest. I was especially intrigued by the store names and how they referred to natural water sites, water quality, and spiritual aspects related to water. It appeared that the concepts in my previous installation artworks, Sacred Spring and Watershed had manifested themselves in the real word.
I decided to use a photographic strategy atypical to my photographic style to present the subject content in a more objective way. My approach was influenced by the work of several artists and photographers that I have long admired and have had a significant impact on contemporary photography. I considered the social documentary photographs of Walker Evans. His approach to storefronts and signage seemed perfect for my project. Also, the photo book projects of Ed Ruscha, which used a straightforward, even deadpan, anti-aesthetic depiction of his subjects. I was specifically thinking about 60 water stores in a similar way to Twentysix Gasoline Stations.
And of course, the typology photo works of Bernd and Hilla Becher. I considered their gas tanks as they related to Ed Ruscha’s gasoline stations and more specifically their water tanks as they would relate to my photographs of water stores.
To create Western Waters, I went on pilgrimages to these water sites—numerous road trips across four Southwestern states over a period of several years. Never knowing what I would find when I arrived at the location, each store provided some commonalities but each also provided an individual experience. Ironically, this was similar to the experiences I had wandering in India in the early 80’s seeking holy and healing water sites, but often just finding a spigot and a sign marking the site.
Western Waters establishes a framework for understanding how we view the natural world (especially water) as a commodity. There are hundreds of independently owned water stores in the Southwest and this contemporary phenomenon continues to grow throughout the arid states. The stores attempt to give the consumer health and happiness, as seen in ironic store names, such as “Pure Water” and “Happy Water.” My straightforward typology approach to the subject emphasizes the sites—the store names and other signage, architectural elements, and the mostly generic strip mall settings.
The success of these stores is based on consumer fear that their tap water is not safe to drink and providing a less expensive alternative to bottled water. Water stores are generally located in low-income neighborhoods, areas with large immigrant populations, retirement communities and/or in regions where tap water has a very high mineral content. The businesses utilize different combinations of water purification systems that produce water of varying quality and taste.
I have photographed nearly two hundred of these stores throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, and Southern Nevada. The photographs are typically shown in an installation pattern of 60 images that refer to geography and mapping—where the stores are situated in the four states in relation to each other and my road trip experience. These photographs will serve in the future as a historical document of either a fleeting fad or the foundation of what will become commonplace in our society.
All images © 2013 Sant Khalsa. All rights reserved.
For full portfolio of images please visit the artist’s website at: http://santkhalsa.com/Portfolio.cfm?nK=2543&nL=0&nS=0.