Water Watcher: Seeking The Substance That Makes Us Human


The epic California drought articles keep spreading across the web, and I find myself imagining the reality of a waterless urban existence. This isn’t the first drought in California’s history, however — it just happens to be the one we’re living in today. So when I went up to Portland, Oregon, to lecture at Portland State University on the concept of “Warholian Instahumor,” a new term I coined to describe the Instafamous, I welcomed the water, rain, moisture floating in the air. Over the past few months, I’ve been subconsciously seeking water in all of its forms, perhaps as a reaction to these drought articles. I always find what I am looking for when traveling, experiencing art, and immersing myself in the technology that defines our times. This time it happened in Portland.  


Multnomah Falls. Photos by Alicia Eler.

I was swooped up at the Portland International Airport by artist Julie Perini, whose recent documentary, Arresting Power: Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon, is gaining critical attention and making the film festival rounds. As we sped out of the arrivals area, Julie took a wrong turn, leading us away from the city. She explained to me that she’d been out hiking the weekend before, and her brain must have just programmed that turn toward nature. She said that if we kept on this road, we’d arrive at Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s tallest waterfall and a generally spectacular site. Perhaps I would like to watch the water with her.

It didn’t take much convincing. I was ready to witness the falls, a stark contrast to the Los Angeles River’s barely-a-trickle and the Silver Lake Reservoir’s steadily declining reserve. Up on a bridge at Multnomah Falls, I did what every tourist around me did: I took a picture of the magnificent falling water, and posted that image to Instagram and Facebook. Somewhere out there on the social networks, my friends would see that I was indeed roaming in wet territory. Struck by this waterfall’s natural beauty and the grounding nature of Portland’s epic forest landscape, I breathed in deep.


Ben Buswell, I Do Not Belong to the Sky (Horizon), embellished Lambda photographs, dimensions variable, 2015. Courtesy of Upfor Gallery.

The next day, I found myself at Upfor Gallery, located in downtown Portland. Fittingly, the gallery was showing Oregon-based artist Ben Buswell’s No One Above or Below, an exhibition of sculptural photographic work that primarily uses water surfaces as its subject matter. The textural representations of water give a tactile element to the liquid that makes us human.

I was not alone in my desire to touch the sculptures, to make sure they were firm, real, not slipping through my fingers like water itself. This is the impetus of most viewers, explained owner/director Theo Downes-Le Guin and gallery manager Heather Birdsong. In fact, I wondered why perhaps the artist didn’t include a puddle of water in the exhibition, just to satisfy viewers’ desires. Buswell’s artwork made me want to return to the waterfalls. Then I got a Facebook notification that someone had commented on my image of the Multnomah Falls.


Ben Buswell, The Same River (Cello), (polyptych, detail), 2015. Courtesy of Upfor Gallery.

I quickly jumped to check the notification only to find that the commenter was one David Wellman, a dear friend of mine from Chicago. “Are you here?” he asked me, no formalities or @ tagging. He was in town caring for his parents, and just happened to catch my post. It’s moments like these that I’m grateful for Facebook, and do believe that social media is bringing us together in magical ways rather than isolating us, making us socially awkward, or ruining in-person conversations.

I replied to David, telling him that I was in Portland for a few days. We went back and forth before taking our conversation to Facebook Messenger and iMessage, enthusiastically making a plan to meet up. When I saw him the following day for an early breakfast in Southeast Portland, I felt as if I could cry, salt water dripping from my eyes. Instead, the Portland sky just breathed a sigh of relief, drizzling from the overcast gray clouds. The water landed on my face.



 Crystal Paradise is a weekly column published every Tuesday by Los Angeles-based writer Alicia Eler that navigates the naturally occurring weirdnesses that spark at the intersection of art, technology and travel.

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