The Dutch Design Week 2014 event Sense Nonsense at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, had some amusing exhibits on show – a motorised, four wheeled aquarium in which the fish’s movements drive the vehicle, for example – but it was Helmut Smit‘s more serious work that captured the imagination of the public. Big corporations are a popular target for the art world to shoot at, and there are not many bigger and badder than Coca Cola. Like a pantomime villain, the very mention of Coke has anti-capitalists everywhere booing and hissing, and although Smits says he isn’t singling them out, his work The Real Thing does use the soft drink manufacturer to deliver a damning message on wastefulness.
The Real Thing, based on a concept from 2006 and developed with the help of a scientist from University of Amsterdam, is a sculptural method of turning Coca Cola back into its major constituent – water. Smits highlights that in some developing countries, clean drinking water is not readily available, yet bottles of Coke can be easily bought. Although it’s a functioning set-up, Smits isn’t planning on starting a one-man operation to re-purify the world’s soda supplies – in fact the energy required to power the transformation serves only to compound the wastefulness of the original manufacturing process. Rather, the artist is hoping his work will make people stop and think about their consumerist lifestyles, and highlight the appalling inequalities faced by the world’s poorest people.