LINCOLN — What a difference a preposition can make. Lakes and rivers and seas are bodies of water. Bodies in water are people swimming or bathing or otherwise relating to the element that covers 70 percent of the planet’s surface and makes up 60 percent of adult humans.
“Bodies in Water” is also the name of an exhibition that runs at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum through March 11. Organized by the museum’s Martina Tanga, it consists of 28 photographs drawn from the deCordova’s permanent collection. Clearly, the museum knows from water. After all, it’s located on Sandy Pond Road.
Light likes water, which admits and transforms it, as earth does not. This means photography likes water, too. Susan Derges’s four photographs here, with droplets in the foreground and her face in the background, memorably capture this relationship among eye, water, and light.
Our experience of water is universal: It begins at the very beginning, in the womb. Karl Baden evokes those beginnings, albeit slightly later in the process, with “First Bath.” Even without the title and explanatory label, the image would still be startling and memorable: A pair of tiny feet peek out from behind a bare back, with a towel and tub in the background.
Nearly all the other photographs involve water out of doors. A few, like Baden’s, present water within four walls. Stephan Brigidi captures two women enjoying bathing facilities far more ornate than the Baden bathroom. Charles “Teenie” Harris shows a schoolboy taking full, thirst-quenching advantage of a bubbler. John O’Reilly’s “Guitar Elegy” updates Jacques-Louis David’s painting “The Death of Marat,” with its display of history’s most famous (its only?) bathtub assassination.
Where O’Reilly recalls David, Paul D’Amato’s “Woman Sitting on Open Pump — Chicago, 1991,” summons up Lisette Model’s “Coney Island Bather.” In both the D’Amato and Model images, water provides recreation and cooling. “Girl in Rain,” another D’Amato photograph from the same year and city, includes those elements, too. Arms spread, a young woman lies in a puddle during a rainstorm. But pleasure and temperature defer to the appearance of ritual. She could be having a religious experience.
This is one of the impressive things about “Bodies in Water” — and why it feels so much larger than the actual number of photographs would seem to justify. So many of the images manage to convey multiple aspects of the human relationship to water: spiritual as well as physical, threatening as well as restorative, aesthetic as well as sexual. Another Harris photograph, showing a lifeguard in a pool, looks as much like a baptism as a swimming lesson. Edward Weston’s famous nude of his wife, Charis, floating in a pool is as erotic as it is stylized.
Another reason the show feels larger is Tanga’s choosing so many images that complement each other. Duane Michals’s “I See a Beautiful Gigantic Swimmer” shows a hunky head and torso erupting from an otherwise-calm surface. It chimes with Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s portrait of his own blurred body emerging from a Finnish lake. The blur turns him into a flesh-and-blood waterspout. Now that is a human relationship to water.
BODIES IN WATER
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.