A cavernous derelict reservoir in a South Liverpool neighbourhood is the striking setting for AURORA, the outcome of an ambitious international art project. Created by Invisible Flock in collaboration with FACT and artists from India, Indonesia, Japan and the UK, AURORA combines intangible materials – light, sound, smoke – with its mercurial protagonist, water, to create this site-specific installation.
The location truly is a specific and significant site. Sandwiched today between an imposing Job Centre and a church social club (temporarily repurposed as AURORA’s visitor centre), Toxteth Reservoir’s history stretches back to 1845 and its design by Thomas Duncan, Liverpool’s first water engineer. The Victorians reshaped the country’s water infrastructure, and this hulking sandstone construction used the cutting-edge technology of the time to supply fresh water to Liverpool’s growing population; an essential provision for desperate refugees arriving from famine-struck Ireland. Technology and water collide once again on this site through AURORA, which uses innovative, bespoke devices to create art and illusion.
The artwork aims to reveal the wonder in this most fundamental substance. Water is something many of us take for granted – before visiting AURORA, like every morning, I showered in and drank several glasses of the stuff without a thought – but in many places it is scarce, or dangerously unclean. In others, an excess of water can devastate. During the artwork’s run, Indonesia, home to a number of the artists involved in creating AURORA, has borne terrible tragedy caused by a tsunami. AURORA’s creators hope to change perceptions of water by provoking an emotional response from its audiences, rather than by lecturing them.
The vast floor of the reservoir is covered in several inches of water; a tiny fraction of the two million gallons of liquid it used to hold, but enough to seep immediately through my inadequate trainers. Still, it provides a beautiful reflective surface for the changing lights to play off. The sense of the interior space is disorientating and hard to grasp. Other humans appear ghostly and indistinct, and glimpses are teasingly given, then snatched away, of the 170-year-old cast iron pillars and vaulted brick arches. Like the depths of the oceans, having spent much of its existence submerged in water, the inside of the reservoir feels unknowable, even in its present drained state. I wanted to break free of the laser-lined path and explore, but AURORA takes the format of spectator and spectacle. Blocks of ice at the corners of the paths allow for some interaction, glowing with electric light as curious hands touch their slippery surfaces.
An expansive soundtrack guides the audience through water’s cycles, from monsoons, to melting and refreezing glaciers. It starts gently and familiarly; tinkling bells allude to raindrops, before an ethereal choir drifts in, one of the sections made in collaboration with local schoolchildren. The sound grows and a shower becomes a deluge; behind us, the audio is mirrored by water pouring down through the reservoir’s arches. Nature and technology mimic each other, as light hits the falling ‘rain’ to create a visual effect like television static. Powerful bass reverberates around the interior architecture of the space, echoing thunder or crashing waves. It makes the ground and my body feel unsteady.
In the latter half of the 40-minute experience, the audience’s attention is drawn to a central void for a choreographed performance of suspended ice sculptures. Controlled by specially modified winches, and illuminated, they bob up and down in the air between the iron columns like a forest of mechanical fireflies. The solid ice turns slowly and steadily to liquid, drops elongating before falling and adding imperceptibly to the watery floor. As well as technology, unseen human endeavour keeps the installation going, as the hand-carved ice blocks are replaced regularly to melt for a new day’s viewers.
The soundtrack’s pulsating, synthesised beat is overlaid with brass and strings, as lasers flicker to life and trace paths through the crystalline ice, refracting to create bright rainbows of light. The visuals twinkle and shimmer as the orchestral soundtrack swells to a crescendo before dying away, and the audience wades out as another group files in. It is a captivating display of the capacity of technology to reveal the marvellous in the everyday, and a rare chance to walk through a hidden landscape of engineering history.
Denise Courcoux is a writer based in New Brighton.
AURORA took place at Toxteth Reservoir, Liverpool from 21 September – 7 October 2018.