WATER TOWERS AS PUBLIC ART FORMS
July 3, 2002
Erik Maldre

Back in May 2001, there were washers cleaning the water tower of my home town, Elmhurst, Illinois. An interesting photo subject it was. After taking about a dozen or so shots, one of the ground workers asked what I was doing and we conversed for a few minutes. It turns out these guys travel around the country cleaning water towers. That's all they do. How cool is that? Each water tower gets its bath about every 5 years. It takes half a day to wash one water tower.
What you see below is a juxposition of several of the shots I took. While photographing, I found it interesting to integrate the area around me. It was interesting to juxtapose the human element (window washers) next to the object elements (stop sign, street signs, trees). The object elements are huge compared to the human elements.One way to look at it is to say, "My oh my, those humans look awful small next to those object elements." Of course, this brings notions of how small humans are in terms of their surroundings. Should I place an image our solar system here to get the point?
The other end of the interpretation is to say, "My oh my, those objects look absolutely huge next to those humans." We're getting closer to finding the deeper, truer meaning of this experience. When you normally compare a stop sign to a human you usually don't visualize the stop sign being 20 times as large. But the most successful transformation or interpretation of human element to object element is in the water tower/human comparison. The water tower is such an abstract geometric and symmetric object to begin with, that when compared to the humans the abstract nature is further dramaticized.
Not only is the visual experience of a water tower is dramacized by the human comparison, but the interpretation of the tower becomes humanized. The revelation takes form now. Is it really just a water tower? That is the question I began to ask. When I asked the water tower washer this question, he strangely stormed off.
Could it be a space pod being prepared for take off? Or has the water tower started out small and humans come every five years to "water" it and help it grow? This raises many other questions. If so, how long have they been watering this "water" tower to make it grow? Do the "washers" simply spray water to help the tower grow? Or is it a special liquid? I would guess that it's water that they spray on it. People call these strange objects "water towers" and assume that they are reserviors of water. Has anyone actually seen water inside these structures? I sure haven't. Perhaps they are called "water towers" because they grow from humans spraying water on them every five years. And the whole reservior idea is just a myth. That's silly. They grow? I am just trying to get you to open your mind about the reasoning of these objects.
After all I have established the fact that the simplistic, yet sleak and sexy form of these "water towers" best serve as a contrasting element when humans are next to these towers. These towers are a statement on the fragility of man.
Perhaps these mythic objects that are common in our culture aren't really practical objects. Believing these objects are another form of practicality is not acceptable to me. There's something more fundamental going on here. After all, the basic "claimed" function of these devices are centered around water. And water is the basic building block of our lives. I believe these objects were placed for artistic purposes. Why artistic purposes? Like water, art should have a fundamental role in our lives. The creator of these "water towers" seems to know this since they used water as a central theme in this project. Well, who built the water towers? The government did. So that makes the government our artist. The government acting as artists? I guess truth can come from the least likely of sources at times which further emphasizes the true meaning of the water towers which I'll get to in a minute. The government is seeing if the public would accept these towers as being functional water reserving devices or if the public would see what's really going on. The first statement that the government is making involves our society's perception of the function of the water towers. Society thinks these towers are fully functioning water reserviors. Very Practical. The truth? These towers are not water reserviors. They do not serve that practical purpose. It's a statement on our society's obession with material. We love our functioning tools. We love cars that transport us. We love computers that help us manage, design and play. We shouldn't be recognizing these structures as functioning objects. They are sculputures.
Ok... so they are sculptures. How does our society handle these sculptures? Well, our society would then look to the formal beauty of these sculptures. They are quite soothing objects to look at. They are voluptous and smooth. So we can appreciate their formal beauty right? Ah ha, the government has proven us wrong again. The true meaning of these water tower sculptures transcend our society's obsession with the skin deep.
The true meaing of these sculptures came to me when I witnessed the workers washing the Elmhurst sculpture in May 2001. I mentioned earlier that the best sense of the water tower is achieved when compared to man. In this setting, I was really able to scope the physical scale of man against the water tower. Mankind is small. More importantly, mankind is fragile. We sucumb to our desires easily. Look at the photos below. Look how miniscual man is when he is right there at the heart of a water tower. And what better way to say mankind is fragile than for the government to build these gigantic sculptures across the country and focus on two obessions of our society: obession with possession and obsession with looks and contrast that by using a basic, true staple of life, water, as the central symbol of truth. The government is not fooling us. We are merely fooling ourselves. The government is exhibiting these sculptures and we immediately fall victim to our own obsessions. What a strange role for the government to play. Really, though, who is a better artist to make this statement? No one would suspect the government to make such a grand artistic statement AND spread it everywhere in our country. We have been put to the test by an unlikely source and we failed. So the next time you look at a water tower, don't think of water reservoirs. Don't think of their interesting shapes. Think of how fragile our society is.
And why does the government send around a cleaning crew? Well, it's just not to clean the sculptures. it seems the government sends this cleaning crew around the nation to help clue us in on what these water towers really mean. I was fortunate enough to put the pieces together. The workers further emphasize what's really important in life. The fundamentals. They used water, the fundamental staple of our lives, to help clue us in. And they simply used themselves. They placed themselves next to the giant sculptures to show how fragile mankind is. These two elements best demonstrate our nature.

Those little black dots in the images above are the water tower washers.
Scroll down to see a detail shot of one of the washers.