Invisible Geographies New Media Exhibition


Aquarius the Waterman

Aquarius the Waterman by Steve Wetzel

Aquarius the Waterman

United States, 2017 | Steve WetzeL

Aquarius the Waterman opens with a forest in silhouette against billowing clouds. Slowly the sound of human voices enters the soundtrack. The next image shows the mountainous and once-verdant Austrian landscape, destroyed by strip mining. The voices come together in a countdown. Acht. Sieben. Fünf. Vier. Drei. Zwei. Eins. Dynamite is ignited, and one shelf of the strip-mined mountain collapses, followed by applause and cheering.

Composed almost entirely from amateur footage that has been published on YouTube, Aquarius the Waterman explores the Erzberg iron-ore mine, now considered the largest open pit mine in Europe, as it intersects with the legend of Aquarius the Waterman. The footage introduces an ethnically homogeneous group of men, women, and children in trucks, jeeps, and motorbikes, who pass the day joyriding and racing in the mud. Much like drift-racers in cities across the world, they reclaim and repurpose the space, transforming the mines from a place of industrialization in decline into a place of recreation and community. When asked about the legend, many dismiss it as a fairy tale. “No amount of iron or money will answer all our problems,” explains one woman.

A woman (non-German/non-Austrian but German-speaking) with a discernable accent  explains in a voiceover that the valley once contained “a quite lucrative mining industry, not unlike the many iron ranges found in Minnesota.” In this way, the film moves from Europe to North America, tracing points of commonality in the exploitation of natural resources by people who themselves may have migrated from Styria (a state in southeast Austria) to Minnesota (a state in midwestern United States).

According to legend, Aquarius the Waterman safeguarded a treasure. He lived in the Black Puddle, surfacing occasionally to sun himself on a rock. Desperate for his treasures, the local villagers captured the Waterman by luring him with roasted meat, pastry, wine, and a linen robe. In exchange for his freedom, he offered to reveal the location of iron ore that would last beyond their lifetimes, thus telling the story of the founding of the Erzberg mine. The legend ends with an enigmatic statement by the Waterman.

The filmmaker tells us that the legend is a warning against environmental devastation and “a hasty collective wish,” or perhaps a call for “a more loving, tolerant human community.” “The film,” writes WetzeL, “is about storytelling, the intersection of geography and human culture, and perhaps the need to reassess our relationship to the material world.” Audiences understanding German will also notice that the English-language subtitles are no longer translations of what the speakers appear to be saying and stand on their own as elements of storytelling — all written by the filmmaker.