What could be more appropriate, in the middle of the Earth summit in Johannesburg, than to exhibit an image of the most important and discussed of life’s elements, water? Scientists tell us that by the 2030 the biggest emergency on our planet will  be the water shortage. Water,  without which life on earth is impossible, will soon  become the most precious resource to preserve; if not we perish.

Alistair Wilson, a Welsh artist living in Belfast, celebrates the beauty and  the strengths of water, installing his work in Venice, the city that on has  built its entire history on water. This he does with apparent simplicity and innocence, giving us many  possibilities and levels of interpretation.

The installation consists of an old photographic image reproduced on  Perspex, which is lit from behind and cut to fit the arched altar of the  oratory San Ludovico. Traditionally, we would see a religious painting in  the same position.

This idea, to exhibit contemporary art in historical spaces like old  museums or churches, has been enabled by the director of the Nuova Icona gallery, Vittorio Urbani, who has for many years been involved in promoting  international art in Venice. Showing modern art in ancient building which are dedicated to spirituality puts artists in a delicate position, one with certain responsibilities. Their art in this  context stops belonging only to their time, but links itself to  the history of humanity; this demands from artists that they measure their ideas  for a particular environment in constant respect to its already existing  content.

Wilson came to terms with his task in full comprehension of the  implications that the oratory space involves. He had approached his  installation formally and with apparent detachment, but not without awareness  that the many layers of history around his work will speak for  themselves and will add to it many dimensions.

Alistair Wilson: Fonte, installation shots

The photographic image represents a waterfall in Canada. Two lines of water  fall from considerable height, joining into one stream behind the  tops of fir trees. The artist continues its fall, flooding the floor of  the church, making water become a physical reality. This floor, like many other floors in Venice, will soon be  flooded naturally many times over and over again.

The water image on the church altar could represent Nature in its most  essential form. But there is another reading to the installation, which has to do  with the origin of the photograph. The photo is enlarged from an early transparency on glass, dating to around  the turn of the 20th century. It was intended at that time to stimulate the Irish population  to emigrate to Canada. During Victorian times many  young, strong men, usually single, were emigrating, with the hope of bettering their  lives but often also with a pure desire for adventure. I would presume that the image that Wilson has chosen for his  artwork was originally directed at these young men. The photo was  meant to seduce them, as it seduced the artist, appealing to their sense of  free spirit through the representation of the wild beauty of Canadian nature. What could be more seductive and beautiful than a clean, powerful stream of  water hitting the rocks with force, spilling its transparent matter all  over the severe landscape so different to the gentle, green countryside of  their native Ireland?

Sonia Rolak is an artist, curator and art critic based in Venice.

Alistair Wilson is the first artist to benefit from the new exchange programme initiated jointly by Nuova Icona, Venice, and Queen’s University, Belfast; more information here . Nuova Icona has consistently assisted with the Republic’s representation at the Venice Biennale; more on the Republic’s representation here .