Water, water everywhere and not a drop fit to drink

Joseph Beuys produced many ‘multiples’ - a series of identical art objects produced or commissioned by him.

One of his main reasons for using them was that it allowed him to distribute both his art and his ideas to a wider public.

Imogen Foulkes describes on a BBC webpage of 2001 a state of affairs in Germany, of which Beuys was very aware: “For decades, industrial and domestic waste flowed untreated into the river and, not surprisingly, the Rhine was seriously polluted from the 1950s to the 1970s. Fish disappeared and it was dangerous to swim”.

As a means of highlighting this, Beuys, back in 1981, produced his multiple ‘Rhine Water Polluted’. It was made in conjunction with Nicolas Garcia Uriburu, an environmental artist and activist, who had already come to prominence in 1968 when he used fluorescein (a harmless pigment which turns a bright green when synthesized by microorganisms in the water) to dye Venice's polluted Grand Canal. He went on to repeat the act on New York’s East River, the Seine, the port of Antwerp and, of course, the Rhine.


Here Beuys and Garcia Uriburu are carrying the dyed, polluted Rhine river water ready to be bottled and to be used in the multiples.

Each of the 25 bottles produced carried a type-written label with the words:

H2O + 10.000 Poisons

and were signed by both Beuys and Garcia Uriburu.

With this multiple Beuys and Uriburu’s were bringing the adverse effects of river pollution into the consciousness of a wider public.

The headline of Imogen Foulkes’ article reads ‘Rhine on path to recovery’. The article was published in June 2001 and referred mainly to the positive strides made to reduce toxic chemical pollution.

But now another problem has been highlighted by the The University of Basel whose website in December 2015 states:

“Between Basel and Rotterdam, the Rhine has one of the highest microplastics pollution so far measured in rivers, with the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area showing peak numbers of up to four times the average. Among investigated rivers, the Rhine is thus among those most heavily polluted with microplastics. This is reported by researchers from the University of Basel, who evaluated, for the first time, the plastic concentration at the surface of one of the big European rivers. Their results have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.”

The same problems - just different pollutants.