Conservatively speaking, we can say that it has taken about 30 years for mainstream politicians to seriously and regularly address energy policy in terms of national security. Finally, the idea of energy independence has emerged from the category of leftist woo-woo to become a required centerpiece to any and all national platforms. Only the details, in terms of environmental impact, vary significantly across the political spectrum.

One has to wonder, then, how long it will take for water to trickle up into the consciousness of presidential politics and national priorities.

The Santa Fe City Council was expected last month to do away with credits offered for rain collection barrels. Purchases of such barrels have declined in the past two wet years, and both homeowners and government are apparently easing away from a drought mentality. Yet the nation’s largest reservoirs, both in the Southwest, remain less than half-full. Seven states, including New Mexico, claim water from the Colorado River Basin, a gross over-allocation of a limited resource. Supply in the region is credibly dwindling even as the population increases. Nationally and internationally, drinking water supplies are among the most vulnerable resources in terms of potential terrorism. Water is increasingly privatized at a time when millions of people die annually because of lack of access to clean water. Indeed, water is set to be one of the defining geopolitical factors of the coming century, but it barely passes the lips of leaders.

Common logic would say that angry people without, say, gasoline, would be timid compared to angry people without access to water. Yet Americans are cranky to the point of Boston Tea Party-style revolt when gasoline prices reach $5 a gallon, but are somehow tolerant of water reaching similar cost pinnacles. This is the case, despite the fact that bottled water routinely costs up to 7,000 times more than the stuff—often equally pure—that pours out of the tap.

This last fact comes courtesy of Water Planet: Beauty, Abundance, Abuse, an ambitious, multi-faceted exhibition/happening that aims to consider water through the broad spectrum of many artists and performers. The efforts range from charming to profound to clumsy. Water Planet is organized relatively democratically, with lots of artistic input from lots of people. The result is not the most concise and powerful exhibition (a challenging thing to assemble in the Capitol Rotunda to begin with) but relies instead on the strength of a chorus of voices.

Straightforward photography is some of the strongest work in the exhibition. Joan Myers exhibits images from locations as disparate as Antarctica and the Salton Sea. Each wide horizontal print (pigment prints on rag paper), though, exudes a similar sense of expanse and the quiet buzz that consumes the mind when one considers something trapped between bleak and magnificent. Very capable and evocative photographs are also presented by Scott Campbell, who shoots underwater in grainy black and white, and Natalie Fobes, who centralizes the utilitarian role of water as provider, for both humans and animals.

In different ways, both Jennifer Schlesinger and Matthew Chase-Daniel present tools for the mythological and philosophical consideration of water. Schlesinger’s large prints, describing the light on water’s surface when facing different directions, are endlessly shifting mediums that encourage a voyage into space, texture and sensation. Chase-Daniel splinters his imagery into fractal-ized meta-patterns of water that tug at the mind and push the eye to go beyond looking and start seeing.

Basia Irland sets her work well above the average level by following the simple rule of showing, rather than telling. Too much of Water Planet is text-heavy and pedagogic rather than simply presented with the natural poetry of art. When Irland presents the documentation of a project called “Receding/Reseeding”—in which seeds are embedded in a book of cast ice and then left in a stream so that seeds tumble down the watershed as the ice is eroded and melted—there is as much instructional value as one could hope for, without any of the patronizing or politicizing that too frequently accompanies issue-driven art.

Another tact is taken by Ana MacArthur, who presents a design-based, almost academic chart called “Where Light Meets Water.” It is educational and well presented, but has no need to be regarded as more than it is and has no ego in its qualification as “art.” If there can be intrinsic value to holding such an exhibition in the crucible of legislation, then sensible presentations like MacArthur’s are more likely to elicit change among politicians than artworks that are too showy and self-indulgent.

If you go, don’t miss interacting with the “water bell” assembled by Dominique Mazeaud and Michael Baron. Made from simple ceramic elements loaned by Jackalope, it enables one to listen to dripping water almost as if one were in a strange grotto. Simple and charming, it also has the power of a Zen master with a big stick: It snaps you out of your normalcy and nudges you into a new realm.

Water Planet
Through Dec. 12

Rotunda Gallery
New Mexico State Capitol
491 Old Santa Fe Trail