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As viewers enter Carolina Caycedo’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, they are greeted by a sculptural ofrenda, or offering, that suspends in absolute stillness from the ceiling. Composed of vibrantly colored fishing nets that stack to form a conical-shaped tent or skirt, the sculpture Limen (2019) welcomes viewers with the scent of fresh flowers that hang almost at their feet. Reminiscent of the Mexican marigolds seen in Día de los Muertos altars, red, yellow, and orange flowers rest on a wooden gold-panning bowl suspended from the sculpture, evoking the greed of colonial enterprise. The Spanish legend of El Dorado, a New World land so rich and resplendent that kings would cover their bodies in gold dust, inspired countless European expeditions in search of a city of gold that never materialized, but that led to the exploration, mapping, and resource extraction of much of South America. As a counterpoint, the sculpture is meant to be placed at the entrance for protection. Limen, Latin for “threshold,” introduces the audience to Caycedo’s thematic interests—namely, how an Indigenous and woman-centered worldview can resist, and perhaps even restore, the destruction wrought by extractive economies.
Caycedo (who was born in 1978 in London and lives and works in Los Angeles) is better known to international audiences, but the midcareer retrospective organized by the MCA’s Carla Acevedo-Yates provides an in-depth overview of her practice for American audiences. The twenty-year survey features Caycedo’s videos, artist books, sculptures, textiles, and photographs. Given how much of her work speaks to environmental concerns, Chicago is a particularly significant location. On the one hand, the city is home to a large Latinx community—approximately a third of its residents—and on the other, the region will soon be profoundly impacted by climate change. Chicagoland, and the Midwest more generally, is home to the largest body of freshwater lakes in the country, which might become subject to commodification, and their resources will surely attract climate migrants and refugees in the years to come.
The protection of our waterways is central to most of the work on display. Much as Limen does with its fishing net construction, Caycedo’s intricate and precarious sculptures from the Cosmotarrayas series speak to the way traditional fishing villages have resisted the privatization of their rivers. The cast fishing net, or atarraya in Spanish, gestures to sustainable ecosystems that are under threat as hydroelectric dams continue to proliferate. The delicate fishing net sculptures that hang from the MCA’s high ceilings weave together the stories of these communities and how they believe in water as a common good. In addition to Caycedo’s sculptures, her artist books occupy a central place in the show. The Serpent River Book (2017) spreads its folds over a snake-like table. The seventy-two-page accordion contains archival images, maps, poetry, drawings, and texts that examine the life of rivers and water protectors.
In her video installation Spaniards Named Her Magdalena, but Natives Call Her Yuma (2013), Caycedo dwells on the controversial El Quimbo Dam. The two-channel projection, shown in a separate room over a reflective pool, sets footage of the Magdalena River in Colombia against images of waterways in Germany and crowds of protestors being controlled by German police. These disparate images in two seemingly random geographies, some of which were filmed during the artist’s residency in Berlin, reflect the forces of control regulating nature and our bodies. Throughout the video, Caycedo’s voice can be heard narrating stories about the river in a hushed whisper. She recalls childhood memories of being frightened by the grandness of this body of water, seeing her uncle dive without fear, slowly making her way across and feeling how her body became one with the water as the current helped her reach the shore. She also discusses meeting with a Native elder from one of the Indigenous communities resisting the dam, who told her that damming was the equivalent of tying your veins or plugging your anus. This attention to Indigenous knowledge permeates Caycedo’s works. The artist urges viewers to see what critic Macarena Gómez-Barris calls “submerged perspectives” in her book The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. These are framed as local knowledges that resist the “colonial extractive gaze by seeing the river as a place of subtle yet staggering social and ecological sustenance rather than merely as moving water to be harnessed for electricity” (Duke University Press, 2017, 15). Gómez-Barris’s theory gets at the heart of the exhibition, and indeed helps to clarify its title. The “submerged perspective” demands undoing the Western binaries of nature versus culture, human versus nonhuman, so viewers can begin to sense other ways of knowing, or the view From the Bottom of the River.
The exhibition is accompanied by the first major publication on the artist, a true testament to the MCA’s Ascendant Artist initiative. The bilingual, full-color catalog contains three thoughtful essays on Caycedo’s oeuvre. The first, by curator Acevedo-Yates, discusses the artist’s methodology as “spiritual fieldwork.” She provides a detailed account of Caycedo’s working process, particularly with the series Be Dammed, which drove her to work and live alongside marginalized Indigenous communities whose spiritual philosophies and land stewardship fueled much of her art. The project, importantly, has brought international attention to the political struggles of these key witnesses. The Lucas Museum’s chief curator, Pilar Tompkins Rivas, authored the second essay, which examines the participatory aspects of “geochoreographies,” a name Caycedo uses for public actions and performances in which collectives enact symbolic resistance using their bodies as a medium. Tompkins Rivas notes how this repertoire of moving a social body, and bridging the gap between art and life, has its roots in the Brazilian Neo-Concrete Movement, as seen in the work of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape. Caycedo’s Feminist Histories: Artists after 2000 (2019)—a floor-to-ceiling tapestry composed of clothing embroidered with the names of significant artists, also on display in the MCA exhibition—makes clear that the artist chooses to identify with a matriarchal lineage that includes Pape, along with figures like Fanny Sanín, Judith Baca, and Tania Bruguera. The matriarchal genealogy outlined in the tapestry likewise extends to dozens of environmental activists, such as the late Berta Cáceres and Winona LaDuke, whose portraits the artist drew carefully on the surface of a large banner. In a world that still stubbornly rejects the histories of these radical women, Caycedo revels in their unstoppable and heroic actions with the slogan Ni Dios, Ni Patrón, Ni Marido (Neither God, nor boss, nor husband) written on a nearby campaign banner.
The showstopper of the MCA’s survey is a video piece titled Apparitions (2018), which unfortunately remains underexplored in the catalog. Commissioned as a collaboration between the Vincent Price Art Museum (formerly directed by Tompkins Rivas) and the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, the video installation epitomizes Caycedo’s geochoreography as dancers perform within the lavish halls of the institution to embody the ancestors wronged and forgotten by the Eurocentric impulse of Enlightenment science. Viewers watch their mesmerizing movements in a small projection room, which was consistently filled to capacity during my visit. The visual spectacle is clearly indebted to Caycedo’s collaborator Marina Osthoff Magalhães and her striking choreography. Magalhães sets her dancers alight; they roam the grounds of the Huntington as if preparing to exorcise its demons or awaken the river goddess Oshun, a Yoruba deity who survived the Middle Passage.
The third essay, by Venezuelan filmmaker David Hernández Palmar, provides a South American peer’s perspective on the social commitments of Caycedo’s art. Hernández Palmar has personally participated in Caycedo’s direct actions and geochoreography trainings in Colombia, where they have mobilized communities for the defense of their territories and rivers. He discusses how Caycedo coordinates public actions to encourage large numbers of protestors to invoke everyday gestures such as the casting of nets in the river. Hernández-Palmar describes further how these forms of art and civil disobedience nurture historical memory for these communities and foster ongoing dialogues on political agency.
In addition to viewing this important and timely survey on Caycedo, museum visitors through July could also see Acevedo-Yates’s solo exhibition of Puerto Rican artist Omar Velázquez (b. 1984) in the third-floor galleries. Velázquez, a musician and painter who splits his time between the island and Chicago, draws on the tropical landscapes and music histories of Puerto Rico to create enigmatic and surreal large-scale paintings and string instruments. Human faces fill the verdant fields of his mountainscapes. Birds balance precariously over plein air still lifes. Velázquez plays with intensity and hue so much that at times it is difficult to discern foreground from background. But although the colors are warm and inviting, a sense of anxiety pervades the work, with small reminders of our recent troubles in a discarded mask or Lysol bottle.
With these two concurrent shows, the MCA (hopefully) renewed its commitment to develop exhibitions that address the ongoing effects of the Anthropocene and that center the voices of BIPOC artists who remind us that another future is possible.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art, Art History, and Design, University of Notre Dame