As Amara Antilla, the Contemporary Arts Center’s senior curator, explains it, the idea for the show Breaking Water (on view May 6–August 14) began as she thought about Cincinnati’s proximity to the Ohio River. With awareness of climate change growing, she realized water itself is both a positive life force and an agent of destruction.
Antilla began to have discussions with artists she knew or admired, and Breaking Water took shape. “Each of the artworks included raises a different perspective on water, the issues related to climate change, and the need to decenter the human perspective as we think about the environment and water’s central role in our lives,” she says.
Ultimately, she and French co-curator Clelia Coussonnet selected work from an international array of 17 artists working in the Philippines, France, Italy, Finland, Britain, Uzbekistan, and several U.S. states. Some have multicultural and multinational backgrounds, including collaborators Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, who live and work in both Lithuania and the Boston area, and Calista Lyon, who comes from Australia but is based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The show features installation and video art, photography, painting, sculpture, and performance.
“We don’t choose artists based on where they’re from, so it’s in part coincidence that we ended up with artists from these places,” Antilla says. “But it does demonstrate that the importance of these questions extends beyond Cincinnati or Midwestern conversations into something much more international.”
The exhibition’s title comes from the name of a new video installation work that Antilla commissioned from Lyon and Carmen Winant, a San Francisco native who’s now a Columbus-based photographer and an associate art professor at Ohio State University. The multi-channel video plays on a loop to show images not only of the ways that water can break but also the way the word break can have different meanings. “River dams exploding,” says Antilla, “and walls being pushed over by water in the context of hurricanes and other natural disasters.”
The meaning of “breaking water” in regard to pregnancy and childbirth figures in the work as well. “That’s the transition from being in the womb to the process of entering the world,” Antilla says. “That’s the first pivotal moment in anyone’s life when you start breathing and existing. I think, for Calista and Carmen, that was a really apt metaphor for the shift in perspective that’s necessary as we think about issues related to climate change.”
One artist who will show preexisting work is Vian Sora, who was born in Baghdad but now lives in Louisville. Her paintings convey a fluid-like sense of motion between the figurative and the abstract. She’ll be presenting seven pieces, including the new painting River Bed, a response to last year’s deadly Kentucky tornadoes. “If you look at that painting, there are deflated bodies resting over branches,” Sora says. “I don’t want to say it’s about climate change, but it’s definitely a reaction to that.”
Sora lived with her family in Baghdad during the chaotic violence that began in 2003 when a U.S.-led coalition invaded to oust Saddam Hussein. Leaving for London in 2006, she met an American man she wanted to marry, and they settled in Louisville, his hometown.
She’s come to Cincinnati several times to visit the CAC because it was designed by the Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid. “It makes me feel safe,” says Sora. “It has something that resonates with me, maybe because of all her modern lines and the way she chose to execute that building. I always wanted to show there some day.”
Breaking Water opens at the CAC as the museum seeks a return to normalcy after pandemic cutbacks and last year’s departure of its director, Raphaela Platow. Interim Director Marcus Margerum says there could be a new leadership hire announced by August or September.
The Contemporary Arts Center is open Wednesdays through Sundays, and admission is free.