Sterling Wells

I make water systems that represent relationships between extra-human nature and the human made world. Real world water systems I am thinking about include neglected waterways, HVAC systems, and swamps. My works take the form of fountains constructed from found site-specific materials, interventions into a building’s HVAC system, contained condensation systems, and plein-air watercolor painting. These systems expose something, or make visible, with the intention of breaking apart. I counterract the dissonance between the underlying systems that structure our world and the metaphors we live in, by making systems in which what physically happens produces meaning. I appear in these works to show that I am part of the system, and because these systems must be maintained. 

The physical laws of surface tension and gravity, which are the formal principles that govern the construction of my water system sculptures, are also the properties of the medium of watercolor. In watercolor, the marks represent water, and the paper records the traces of water left by drips, splashes, and immersion.  

As a Floridian, I am always seeking marshes and swamps, neglected sites of drainage, filtration, and incubation. I have been working for the past three years with a site along the Arroyo Seco, where a natural stream flows from a pipe through a triangle of unmaintained public land before connecting with the cement conduit of the Arroyo. Although the city of Pasadena claims that it trims the trees on public land every six years, this site is lushly overgrown, creating an urban wild-space that attracts transient persons and BMX bikers. I have been trying different ways of transposing my interest in sites I don’t want people to come to, into the site of an exhibition space. Arroyo Seco Fountain displaces a portion of this site into an exhibition space. Water from the Arroyo Seco flows through a chain of fused plastic shopping bags, hung on a support construted with materials found from the site. 

An HVAC system is a fountain hidden inside the guts of a building powered by electricty that functions like the planet’s water cycle, heating and cooling air and water to create an indoor atmosphere. This system mediates between outside and inside. Makes a Leak / Takes a Leak was a system grafted onto the existing HVAC system of the exhibition space. When gallery visitors pressed a button, water from a condensation reservoir on the roof was siphoned through a tube to fall into the gallery. 

I am interested in the relationship between the gallery infrastructure and Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (originally “Weather Cube”). In order to function, this work must be situated in an air-conditioned room with a light pointed at it, to create a temperature difference between the air inside and outside the cube. The air conditioning system extracts water vapor from outside air in order to cool it. This water vapor becomes condesate, and is eliminated from the building as a waste product. (In Southern California, this extraction of moisture from the already dry air is particularly perverse.) Thus, Condensation Cube not only demonstrates our planet’s water cycle (evaporation, condensation, precipitation), but reveals the waste product of the air conditioning system, which is hidden inside the guts of the building, but is necessary for the work to function.  

In the 1969 song Pressure Drop by Toots and the Maytals, the titular pressure drop portends both an approaching storm, and karmic misfortune. When the pressure drops, bad weather is on the horizon. My show Pressure Drop merged the Arroyo Seco site and the gallery, into a hybrid site specific to neither. In this installation, water from the Arroyo Seco passed through the phases of the water cycle inside a heated, sealed chamber constructed within the exhibition space. The condensation dripped onto a plein air painting executed at the site where the water was collected. Gallery visitors entered a structure made of greenhouse plastic, and walked through a hallway where they could behold through clear vinyl the evaporation and condensation system. This hot humid climate exagerrated the consequences of transforming fossil fuels into electricity.   

Water holds the contradictions I am interested in between symbolism and physical reality. We use water as a symbol for refreshment, fluidity, and the ability to flow through any obstruction, but water is a scarce and increasingly commodified resource. Water is not only the source of life,  but was the prime mover that powered the factories in England where capitalist labor relations developed. It cools the computers that store all the information retreived by the Internet. In California, water is being extracted and hoarded like other nonrenewable natural resources. The CEO of Nestlé does not think that access to clean water is a human right, and the current administraction is attempting to re-define water to exclude intermittent streams and marshes from the Clean Water Act. But the only way out is through, and sometimes when I look through water, I feel like another world is possible.