Looking Out, Looking In: Conor Clarke's Ground Water Mirror
My problematic relationship with sight has been summarised before by Edgar Allen Poe as seeing through the "the veil of the soul", or the history of landscape representation. He suggests that we can "at any time double the true beauty of an actual landscape by half closing our eyes as we look at it", that "the naked senses sometimes see too little - but then again, they always see too much".1
New Zealand-born Berlin-based artist Conor Clarke's new exhibition Ground Water Mirror connects the waters of Berlin to Whanganui and Auckland. The title is a (mis)translation of Grundwasserspiegel, the German word for water table, the level below ground which is saturated with water. Laced with canals, rivers and lakes, Berlin has a high water table, its 'ground water mirror' never far beneath one's feet. It also flows through a network of overhead pipes pumped across the city. From construction sites to waterways, the pipes are a further reminder of the connectedness of water, permeating environments and people's everyday lives.
Long romanticised as an artistic centre, Berlin nonetheless faces the challenges of maintaining water quality shared by large industrialised cities. In this context, Clarke asks whether we seek out 'nature' in more remote environments in order to aestheticize them, or as a means of self-reflection: provisional solutions to the conditions and anxieties of urban living. It follows she is also interested in examining western concepts of nature as separate from ourselves, why we long for the kinds of fresh water we feel the need to travel to find.
Beginning in Berlin, Ground Water Mirror was further developed during Clarke's 2017 residency at Tylee Cottage in Whanganui courtesy of the Sarjeant Gallery, where she will also present an exhibition later this year. Half of the suite of photographs presented here were captured in Berlin and also during a prior trip to Whanganui. The other half was shot during the residency which extended and developed the project as Clarke journeyed upriver. On the one hand, they represent a return to the familiarities of home, Clarke being born and raised in South Auckland. On the other, as an artist living and working abroad for almost nine years, the series also represents a photographic examination of unfamiliar environments—particularly that of Whanganui and its surrounds—a traveller in one's own land. Speaking to her residency experience, Clarke notes:
The [Whanganui] river is an important part of the project, but I'm interested in fresh water in general, in all the waters that flow throughout daily life. I make no traditional views looking down on the river from a high viewpoint, I photograph the river from the river, or the ground from eye level, usually isolating subjects at close range. Any sweeping vistas I have made in the past have critiqued that quintessential, possessive view of land, water and people. I also want to challenge the categories that we put water into, like "resource", or "nature destination", and use these categories to talk about the connectedness of water, of nature. I am a romantic, but it's more romanticism as a subtle form of activism.2
Given her interest in the histories and politics of landscape representation, Clarke's conception of one's own land could be more accurately seen as one of belonging and identification, rather than of possession. This finds an affinity with the Maori belief that the land owns you.3 Clarke, it appears, belongs to many places.
Romanticism evolved as a reaction to the industrial revolution and the alienation from nature that followed as urbanised societies in large cities developed. However, Romanticism eventually became a passive and commercialised commodity itself, less about active seeing and more a description of a prescribed type of experience framed by formulaic imagery. In contrast, Clarke's contemporary romanticism seeks to raise awareness, implying conscious experience and direct engagement. Ground Water Mirror is about our relationship with land - and particularly with water—that has changed since industrialisation. It reflects on the western notion of human domination over water, and the alienation from it which followed a dependence on its subjugation. The project explores our reasons for romanticising and anthropomorphising this concept we have of nature, including the different ways it is perceived, packaged, categorised and consumed.
The project reflects on the ongoing preconceptions and expectations we bring to viewing the natural world. It references sublime, picturesque and romantic landscape genres, tourism, land surveying, natural resources, alongside the connection between surveying for profitability and the role of the photographer as cultural surveyor and romantic activist. In doing so, Clarke compares and contrasts the experience of locations worlds apart, from the Whanganui river to the 'romantic Rhine'. Indeed, in the early days of paddle steamer tourism the Whanganui River was once advertised as the Rhine of New Zealand. Artist and writer Holly Best says of Clarke's work:
Our expectation of a place is often defined by images of other places, and our persistence to photograph the places we have seen affirms our perceived authority as consumers, owners, and in control of our own environments and nature.4
Indeed, it was the commodification of the Whanganui River which led to it recently being granted the legal rights of personhood, the first in the world. The implications of this ruling are fascinating in the contrast it establishes between Maori and European cosmologies.
From the Glenbrook Steel Mill Lookout Point in Auckland near where Clarke grew up, to the lake of Berlin's Langer See, to St Joseph's Convent in Jerusalem (Hiruharama) in the central North Island, as images these landscapes can operate as both general and specific, evoking personal associations and interpretations of the sites. For viewers, the tension this project establishes between the familiar and unfamiliar is echoed in photography's unique ability to make strange, to at once evoke intimacy and distance, to reveal and conceal. Edgar Allan Poe's sentiments resonate with photography's capacity to activate, complement and extend the senses, its reframing of time and space allowing us to slow down and contemplate more deeply. Looking out, looking in - in the mirrored surface of water, the images also ask what we each might see of ourselves in its reflection. Noted environmental historian William Cronon put it well:
As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.5
Emil McAvoy, June 2018
 Conor Clarke, "Ground Water Mirror," interview by Emil McAvoy, PhotoForum, February 2018, https://www.photoforum-nz.org/blog/2018/3/18/ground-water-mirror-an-interview-with-conor-clarke Quotes from Edgar Allan Poe, "The Veil of the Soul," in The Unknown Poe: An Anthology of Fugitive Writings, ed. Raymond Foye (San Francisco, California: City Lights Books, 1980), 51.
 Clarke also has Ngai Tahu heritage.
 Holly Best, Photographing Nature: The Slippery Topographics of Conor Clarke, Art New Zealand, no. 166 (Winter 2018): 176.
 William Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 1.
Press release courtesy Two Rooms.