Inside the ICA Watershed

September 25, 2018 | By Nadia Naeem

Sitting just across the harbor in East Boston is the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) newest attraction, The Watershed. A short ferry from ICA takes you to a unique gallery experience that gives you an appreciation for a lesser known part of Boston. By expanding the museum across the harbor, the ICA hopes to bring new visitors to East Boston and increase the accessibility of art to Bostonians and visitors alike.


Photos by Nadia Naeem

Built out of a formerly condemned copper pipe facility at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina in East Boston, the award-winning firm Anmahian Winton Architects transformed the old facility into the contemporary art space it is today, while still maintaining the industrial feel of the building. The industrial surroundings from the building’s former life contrast with the digital contemporary art. A unique rainbow of lights hanging from the ceiling marks not only a distinction from the location but also from other galleries. On top of being a space for art, The Watershed is also a space for education. There is an area for children to read educational books and try their hand at brain puzzles, in the hopes that it will bring younger audiences into the art world. The gallery also features a number of photographs of East Boston shot by local teens as part of the ICA’s digital photography program.

The Watershed, which opened its doors on July 4, plans to feature an artist every summer. For their first year, the gallery presents works from Diana Thater, an innovator in film and video art since the 1990s. Thater’s work focuses on the natural world and the threats it faces, using a unique blend of use of unusual camera angles, scale and colored lights to challenge the way that we typically view moving images. Her art interacts with the space in a novel way, transporting the viewer into a new world.


Photos by Nadia Naeem

Upon entering the space, you are greeted by the first of Thater’s pieces, “Untitled Videowall (Butterflies),” (2008). The piece highlights the increasingly detrimental effect that human activity has on the environment, in this case, on the Monarch butterfly. The piece references the tragedy that Thater witnessed as millions of Monarch butterflies died from frost in migration from Canada to Mexico.

As you continue into the gallery, Thater’s “Delphine,” (1999) takes up an enormous presence in the space. Composed of four projectors and a stack of video monitors, the piece focuses on a pod of dolphins swimming in the Caribbean and interacting with the divers filming them. The projections spill across a corner of the space, off the walls, and onto the ceiling and the floor. The angles of the projections are uniquely distinct from similar forms of video art, as they disorient the viewer to make them feel as if they are swimming alongside the dolphins. The stack of video monitors depicts an image of the sun captured by a NASA telescope. “Underwater and outer space are two environments that human beings can enter, though ultimately not survive. In ‘Delphine,’ there are three kinds of bodies in space: dolphins moving through volumetric space; the sun spinning in a vacuum of black space; and the viewer moving through real space made volumetric by the artificial light filling the gallery and framing the projections” explains the Watershed’s guide.


Photos by Nadia Naeem

A hallway contains the next pieces of Thater’s work, titled “As Radical as Reality,” (2017) and “A Runaway World,” (2017). The pieces are composed of a combination of screens and projectors. The subjects for “As Radical as Reality” and “A Runaway World” are the Northern white rhinoceros and the bull elephant respectively. Both of these animals could potentially face extinction, and Thater hopes to highlight the dangers they face. To further shed light on their endangerment, the animals were filmed at sunset to remind us that the sun is literally setting on these animals. Through these artistic choices, Thater highlights the need for conservation so that we do not lose these incredible animals.

The last of Thater’s pieces in the gallery are, “Day for Night One (Two and Four),” (2013). Utilizing in-camera double exposure, Thater depicts slightly moving images of flowers, a recurring element in her work, across three groups of screens. The multi faceted work references both classic cinema and experimental photography in its composure.     

Overall, the ICA Watershed offers a unique art experience, where you can not only learn more about art, but also have a conservation about nature and the city of Boston. The Watershed will close on Oct. 8 and will reopen with a different artist next summer.