Water is a big part of Dark Mofo—the Museum of Old and New Art’s winter festival. Indeed, the longest, darkest day of the year will be marked by a collective dawn plunge into the icy Derwent River. At past events, drummers have been lowered on platforms into the river and artists have set up their own little islands as a temporary utopian escape.

This year, contemporary Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen presents Washing River—part of a series of works begun in Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province in 1995. The work consists of blocks of frozen river water stacked on the boardwalk, which the artist has invited members of the public to ‘wash’ using a variety of cheap mops and scrubbing brushes. Over the coming days the river ice will melt and return to the body of water from which it comes.

The gusto with which the public have approached this task belies the seriousness of its underlying message, namely that the river needs cleaning. For decades Tasmania has been the site of tense ideological debate between industry and environmentalists. The battle lines drawn between these two radically different points of view continues to define Tasmanian politics.

This work steps into that divide and, like many of the pieces presented at this festival, it is ritualistic rather than literal. Cleaning the blocks of ice will not cleanse the polluted river, but it does highlight the problems facing so many of the world’s waterways.

Yin Xiuzhen is supported by Pace Gallery, Beijing.

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