Artemis of the Lea

Photo: Matt Clayton

At the end of last year I was pleased to present my first outdoor installation, at the Queen Elizabeth Park (the Olympic Park) in East London.

It was commissioned by UCL Culture in collaboration with researcher Dr. Tse-Hui Teh, who researches water infrastructures and especially the way that populations use and relate to water.

The project is not so much about water management technology, but the interplay between the individual and infrastructure, from our bodies to the landscape.

L: Artemis of Ephesus; R: Venus of Willendorf

Taking advantage of urine’s high nitrogen content, these jugs were designed as watering cans, but also as urinals (gender-neutral, but well-suited for the female anatomy). Their voluptuous shape recalls the curvy robustness of ancient fertility figurines, but when placed on their frame also refers to Artemis of Ephesus.

As shimmering and translucent containers for urine, they elevate human waste into something that is precious and treasured.

Over the summer, I spoke to allotmenteers around the Lea Valley, to encourage them to use urine on their crops. There were two main responses:

1. Hilarity
2. “I do that already, I just don’t talk about it”!

Solutions to water management are often thought of as large scale¹, but they can equally be addressed by focussing on the ways that individuals personally interact with their environment and the water system.

On the final day of the installation, the watering cans were taken down and distributed to allotmenteers, some of whom retrieved them on pedalos:

🦢It’s often been said that the primary archetype in our cities is phallic. What, then, can we do to reclaim the urban landscape? Are there ways of reorienting attention to things that are connective and proliferative, and more fundamental to cities than buildings, and what does that look like?

The installation revisits these ancient fertility goddesses, earthy and powerful, that seem to predate more hierarchical civilisations². There seems to be a parallel in resurrecting and re-empowering these as muscular figures of strength.

And so the artwork becomes a celebration of water, which is so essential to our cities yet so strangely invisible: making waste something to that is precious and treasured, reviving connections between people and their environment and the water system.

Notes

1. For example: currently under construction, the Thames Tideway Tunnel is a 25km tunnel running from Acton to Abbey Mills underneath the Thames. Bazalgette’s combined sewer system mixed rainwater and sewage, and incorporated overflows into the Thames to ensure that sewage does not back up into people’s homes at times of peak rainfall. As demand has grown on the network, there are now an estimated 50 overflows of raw sewage into the Thames every year. The Tideway Tunnels are designed to hold this overflow until it can be treated. The £4.2bn cost will be paid by Thames Water customers.

2. When the Ancient Greeks conquered neighbouring civilisations, fertility deities (usually female) of these civilisations were often syncretically absorbed into Greek mythology. In most cases, they were literally demonised, frequently slain by Greek heroes in a mythic reenactment of the conquest. Medusa, for example, is thought to be a Berber goddess (snakes are a common symbol of renewal). Artemis of Ephesus is a rare goddess that was adopted as a local variant of the goddess Artemis. A similar process possibly occurred in other conquering civilisations such as Indo-Aryan and Aztec. The goddess Tlazolteotl is a Huastec (pre-Aztec) deity of “vice, purification, steam baths, lust, midwives, filth, and a patroness of adulterers”. It is contended that in the more hierarchical and patriarchal societies of warrior civilisations, the once muscular, sexual, and dirty goddesses of agrarian civilisations were sanitised into protectoresses (read: carers) and virgins (Athena, Diana) – perhaps most clearly articulated by the version of sacred femininity that is the Virgin Mary.