This Water Flows Uphill

Conceptual artist Fabian Knecht partners with American climbers Emily Harrington and Sam Elias to take his latest performance project to the top of Everest

Apr 13, 2012
Outside Magazine
Fabian Knecht

Knecht with his father Bernd at Kathmandu's Yak and Yeti Hotel    Photo: Grayson Schaffer

Knecht at the Dead Sea

Dead Sea, Israel. Knecht at the beginning of a very long journey for a small bottle of water.

Like a lot of conceptual artists, German Fabian Knecht has a hard time explaining what he does. "You just have to see it," he tells me over a cup of tea at Kathmandu's Yak and Yeti Hotel. Knecht paints, shoots music videos, and performs what he calls "interventions": he once released a rat named Spartacus in the Caspar David Friedrich room of Berlin's National Gallery of Art. Predictably, the rat drew more attention than the 19th-century romantic landscapes hanging on the walls.

Now, Knecht has partnered with American climbers Emily Harrington and Sam Elias for a performance piece he's calling "The Great Transfusion." He's come to Nepal with a spice jar of water from the Dead Sea in hopes of having Harrington and Elias bring it to the summit and swap the water for snow, which he'll then return to the Dead Sea. "I like to travel and do art," says Knecht, 32. "This combines them."

Call it the Everest of fool's errands, but Knecht has a history of going to great lengths to perform symbolic yet seemingly insignificant tasks. "In 2005, I shot a music video where a singer took water from the Atlantic, from Coney Island, and walked barefoot to the Pacific," says Knecht." He connected the two biggest things on earth, the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, with just a little drop." In 2010, Knecht undertook a performance piece called Fred Spits in the Pacific. He carried a vile of saliva taken from a terminally ill boy (that'd be Fred) in Berlin 8,000 miles along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, Russia, hopped on a ferry to Japan, took a train to the coastal city of Tsu, and dropped Fred's spit into the Pacific. "Some people had a problem with that one," says Knecht. "But not the people who work in hospice. They all loved it."

The Great Transfusion came about when Knecht was in New York interning for the artist Matthew Barney, who's best known for his Cremaster Cycle films (and for dating Bjork). Barney did a performance piece with Harrington. After Knecht heard of Harrington's plans to climb Everest, Barney put them in touch.   "They loved the idea from the first email," says Knecht.

Now he's in Kathmandu and preparing to make the trek to Everest Base Camp to meet Harrington and Elias for the first time and deliver his spice jar. And yes, he has a spare bottle in case the first one breaks.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest and its then-unclimbed West Ridge, Eddie Bauer has sent a team of seven mountaineers to repeat the historic climbs. Outside Magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer is currently embedded with the team at Base Camp, sending back daily dispatches, including stories, photos, and videos. A team sponsored by The North Face and National Geographic is also planning on ascending the notoriously treacherous West Ridge, a route nearly as many climbers have died on as have summitted. Schaffer will be covering both attempts, as well as everything else that happens at Base Camp, until early June.

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