Art and Water Management – Randomness and Patterns

curated by Abbey Hill

Much of water management draws on patterns involving randomness. This is typically done in building models based on organizing equations, but has some relevance to art. The following is a collection of art that relates randomness and patterns with reflections on  water management. 

Helter Skelter I – by Mark Bradford (2007)  – source

The artist created this mixed-media piece using paper material from the streets of south central Los Angeles. The disparate parts together depict the chaotic, diverse, and unique aspects of the environment from which they came. This piece also highlights an area of Los Angeles historically neglected and discriminated against. Adelodun et al. (2021) identifies socioeconomic inequalities in developing nations associated with elevated exposure to waterborne illnesses. Technology can bring people safe and accessible water, but economic and social issues hinder progress. Histories of neglect and patterns of disadvantage stand as obstacles to better water management. — Angelica Ortiz 

Example of a Mandelbrot Setsource

Mandelbrot sets are an aspect of fractal geometry that gives visual form to a world of infinite but structured detail, which often will appear random. If all minute and infinite details of reality are important, we can never include them all explicitly in our modeling and planning.  — Jay Lund

Clinamen by Céleste Boursier-Mougeno at SFMOMA (2012-present) – source

Bowls floating in the pool are propelled by jets moving the water beneath the surface.  Viewers may not see the jets, but enjoy the indeterminate drifting of the bowls and the bell-like clinks of their collisions. In water management, we may not always fully understand or see the jets working under the surface, but we see how they shape the world around us and hear the music made by these floating porcelain bowls — Chen Zhang 

Fourever Mandala thread art – by John Eichinger – source

Water management connects many sectors, peoples, and locations. Mandala thread art shows connections like these. Through water we are linked by climate, commerce, culture, and common needs. These connections are complex and varied. There is a certain beauty in that. — Abbey Hill

Geoglyphs of Chiza at the Panamericana near Arica – photograph by Gerhard Hudepohl – source

Sometimes looking too closely distorts our view of a situation.  This is exemplified by the Geoglyphs of Chiza at the Panamericana near Arica, Chile.  Standing on the hillside next to these strange groves and mounds, they don’t look like much.  Farther away the figures of people and designs come into focus.  When we come too focused on narrow questions, as Mitchell (2021) discusses surrounding the question of whether large-scale irrigation or government came first, we can lose sight of the overall context and become too entrenched in our thinking to see the bigger picture. — Angelica Ortiz  

Galatea de las Esferas – by Salvador Dalí (1952) – source

This painting exemplifies the efforts on ‘top-down’ management of climate change. This approach involves downscaling climate projections under different emission scenarios, and then feeding them into impact models before finally analyzing potential adaptation actions to maximize any given objective (Wilby and Dessai, 2003). The central focal point of the composition provides the illusion of a pyramid of spheres expanding towards the observer, similar to the expansion of uncertainty from cascading models. Then, water managers must characterize these uncertainties to develop management actions for adaptation. This process is illustrated by recognizing the silhouette and facial expression of Galatea from the juxtaposition of all the spheres. Francisco Bellido

Abbey Hill is a masters student in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis (  This post is a by-product of a pandemic winter quarter remote small discussion class on “Art and Water Management”.  Abbey Hill, Francisco Bellido, Angelica Ortiz, and Chen Zhang were among graduate students in these discussions.  Jay Lund was the faculty facilitator.

Further Reading:

  • Adelodun, Bashir, Ajibade, Fidelis Odedishemi, Ighalo, Joshua O, Odey, Golden, Ibrahim, Rahmat Gbemisola, Kareem, Kola Yusuff, . . . Choi, Kyung Sook. (2021). Assessment of socioeconomic inequality based on virus-contaminated water usage in developing countries: A review. Environmental Research, 192, 110309.
  • Mitchell, W. (1973). The Hydraulic Hypothesis: A Reappraisal. Current Anthropology, 14(5), 532-534.
  • Wilby, R., & Dessai, S. (2010). Robust adaptation to climate change. Weather, 65(7), 180-185.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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