Water retaining gel crystals – art material

The research focus of this project changed after the demise of the two majestic Oregon Maples in Library Square. Where the heartwood (the innermost part of the tree trunk) should have held up to about 80% water after testing the water content was estimated to be nearer 50%.

And so my artistic research expanded from the strength and stability of the trees, which was the primary focus for the Oregon Maple artwork for Trinity College 2017 exhibition. The 2017 piece focused on the cable bracing system and the internal cellular structure of the tree. The final artworks likened tendon-like structures using the lines of the cable system stretching between various limbs of one of the Oregon Maples.

Trinity College Trees Installation in Oregon Maple 1.jpg

Back to the 2018/19 project. Since the two older trees fell I have been focusing my art research on water. Having used water retaining gel in past artworks I again began to look at this interesting material as a suitable one for inclusion in the 2019 exhibition.

Normally this material is added to the soil around plants and trees during spells of dry weather. It comes in crystal format and after adding water it can expand and hold over 300/400 times its weight in water. Over time the gel loses this water gradually (watering the plants in the process) until all the water is gone and it again returns to it’s crystal form…until it rains again and the gel swells with water again. This process can be repeated numerous times. Manufacturers claim that these gels work for about three years.

gel & compost

In actual fact David Hackett during one of our meeting mentioned that this material might be one that they might need to consider going forward to ensure constant watering of trees during periods of low rainwater. He suggested that they would add the water retaining gel to the soil around targeted trees and that then they would add grey water (collected rain water run off from the buildings on campus) to the gel from time to time as necessary.

In the past I have incorporated water retaining gel into some of my indoor installations, subverting it’s purpose to suit a new function. I was particularly interested in how the engorged gel looked almost like chunks of glass yet also managed to be very visceral in how it felt and sounded when squished.

In one particular instance during 2011 for a group exhibition I constructed a raised walkway in a small intimate room in an abandoned building on Francis Street, Dublin 2. I covered this walkway in expanded water retaining gel and then walked really really slowly along its surface during a live performance. The audience were seated, their eye level at my foot height, the sight and sounds accentuated by their closeness and the intimate nature of the room.

For the purpose of the Trinity College Trees 2019 exhibition I will be using this material much more as it was intended to be used. It will form a large part of the opening live art performance and will remain as part of an outdoor installation throughout the duration of the exhibition.

I can’t say much more for now, but I will post images of the performance afterwards for those of you who won’t be able to be at the live event.