Carolina Caycedo: From the Bottom of the River Exhibition Tour

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Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator Carla Acevedo-Yates leads a video tour of Carolina Caycedo: From the Bottom of the River, a survey of the last ten years of the artist’s practice. See artworks that demonstrate Caycedo’s work across mediums and hear the stories behind these pieces.

Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator Carla Acevedo-Yates leads a video tour of "Carolina Caycedo: From the Bottom of the River," a survey of the last 10 years of the artist’s practice. See artworks that demonstrate Caycedo’s work across mediums and hear the stories behind these pieces.

Transcript

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CARLA ACEVEDO-YATES: What does our world look like to rivers and fish? What is the relationship between bodies of water and social bodies? Hi, I’m Carla Acevedo-Yates, Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator here at the MCA, and today we’re going to take a look at the exhibition Carolina Caycedo: From the Bottom of the River.

CAY: Through her work, Carolina invites us to inhabit the perspectives of nonhuman entities such as rivers and fish, challenging us to understand rivers as public spaces and our bodies as sites for the creation of networks of solidarity and resistance in the fight for environmental rights and social justice. This exhibition surveys the last ten years of Carolina’s practice. And during this walkthrough, you’ll be able to see net sculptures, artist books, installations, while learning a little bit more about her artistic process and some of the stories behind her work.

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CAY: Entering the show for the very first time after installing the artwork was very exciting for me because it was like entering another world, a universe of interconnected relations between humans and the natural world. An experience that was like diving into the muddy depths of the river to see our surroundings from another perspective.

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CAY: The immersive experience of entering the exhibition is heightened by the vinyl mural that you can see behind me, titled Yuma, or the Land of Friends. It’s a digital collage comprised of color and black-and-white satellite images, as well as archival maps that depict the construction site of El Quimbo hydroelectric dam in Huila, Colombia, which blocks the natural flow of the Magdalena River, one of the longest rivers in Colombia. Although it looks like an abstract image from afar, if you look closely, you can see the different stages of the dam’s construction, as well as the devastation that it caused on the environment. So here you can see the reservoir of stagnant or dead water that’s created by the construction of the dam. Right here, you can see the details of it. Here is the Magdalena River as well as the campament where workers lived and work. And then farther along here, in the mural you can see the mine that was created to extract materials to construct the dam. In this work, the view of the satellite is also the militaristic view of power from above. And Carolina, through the layering of different images, taken at different moments in time, hopes to show us the impact on the environment caused by the construction of large infrastructure projects, such as dams and mines.

CAY: The mural, the largest one that Carolina has done to date, is part of the ongoing multimedia project called Be Dammed that examines how large infrastructure projects, like dams and mines, impact local communities whose livelihoods depend on artisanal, small-scale fishing and mining. Though often considered wonders of engineering, dams, of which there are some 57,000 worldwide, can have devastating effects. They privatize waterways, displace communities, and destroy river ecosystems. By examining concepts of flow and containment, Be Dammed makes connections between dam infrastructure and mechanisms of social control.

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CAY: Through a research process that Carolina calls spiritual fieldwork, she builds ongoing, caring relationships with people, places, and other living things, gathering materials and stories to make her work. An example of this are the Cosmotarrayas a series of hanging net sculptures that Carolina makes with handmade fishing nets, or atarraya, which means cast net in Spanish. For Carolina, and also for these communities, the artisanal fishing net is not just a practical tool. It’s a symbol of the fight for land and water rights by Indigenous and rural communities. Unlike the impenetrable concrete construction of dams, the ancestral technology of the net is porous, flexible, and interconnected. The knots that comprise the net symbolize the universe of interdependent relations that exist within ecosystems, which include both human and nonhuman entities. Through these works, Carolina affirms that the everyday gesture of casting a net is a political act that affirms the river as a common good.

CAY: This is Cosmotarraya Elwha, which is one of the first net sculptures created by Carolina, and it’s the result of the performance One Body of Water, where actors embody three rivers in dispute. In this case, the Elwha River in the Pacific Northwest in the state of Washington. Many of Carolina’s Cosmotarrayas are portraits, and this one is a portrait of the river Elwha. But it is also a meeting point between different geographies and belief systems. The color of this net is inspired by the salmon masks made by the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe which have fought for the restoration of the Elwha River, as well as for the removal of two dams.

CAY: For Carolina, the body is very important. It’s both a point of departure, subject matter, and space. And in this sculpture it’s made to resemble a body and you can see different details that are really interesting. You can see a garment called a ruana that is from the Nahua peoples in El Cauca in Colombia that is hanging over a wooden staff that was used in the performance One Body of Water. You can also see two sandals that are inscribed with "Klallam," referring to the Klallam Tribe in the Pacific Northwest, as well as with the phrase "El salmón del tamaño de una niña pequeña." And it’s holding everything together with this wooden shelf where dry sage sits on top. And this dried sage was sourced locally here in Chicago.

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CAY: This Cosmotarraya is titled Ver-o-Peso and it takes its name from the Ver-o-Peso market in Belém de Pará in Brazil where a tailings dam broke in 2015 and the toxic mud from the reservoir destroyed the local town of Barra Longa. Carolina had the opportunity to visit the area one year after the dam burst, and they were still trying to clean up the mess that was provoked by the bursting of this dam. And there she met a woman named Iris, or Iris, and Carolina asked her to embroider some textiles to express the way she felt about the bursting of this dam. And here in the sculpture you can see these beautiful embroideries. And this one in particular says in Portuguese, "My eyes are crying tears of mud," which is really like a visual poem that express all of the sadness and the devastation, both physical but also emotional cost on the population, of this town.

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CAY: This sculpture is titled From the Bottom of the River, which gives the exhibition its name. And it’s made of two hand-blown conical glass pieces, which are covered with artisanal fishing nets. And as you can see, they resemble two eyes. And for Carolina, this really embodies the submerged perspectives, the nonhuman perspectives of the rock, of the fish, that for her invites us to see everything from a completely different perspective. But it also references a very violent history in Colombia. A history where people have disappeared and their bodies lay at the bottom of the river. So it’s also a reference to a wider history of violence within the region.

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CAY: This is one of my favorite moments in the exhibition. When Carolina and I were planning the show, we really wanted to avoid having additional walls in the space to allow the objects, the artworks, and the sculptures to guide the body through the space. And anchoring this experience is the Serpent River Table and Book that you see right here in front, which meanders through the space and also structures relationships between different artworks within the ongoing project Be Dammed. It tells the story of a dammed river, starting with its mouth, its damming, and eventual restoration.

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CAY: The end of the Serpent River Book leads towards the mural of the Magdalena River, whose Indigenous name, Yuma, means "the land of friends." It is also related to the nearby water portrait of the San Gabriel River in Southern California, which tells the story of its damming, as well as the Cosmotarraya nets that are suspended here.

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CAY: Feminist perspective, notably those of environmental activists and fellow artists, play a crucial role in Carolina’s life and practice. Through the works here, she pays tribute to these women and their networks of solidarity and resistance against the patriarchal structures that often erase them and their achievements. The work, Muxeres en mí­, or the Womyn in Me, traces Carolina’s artistic genealogy through an intergenerational group of women artists, but also her family and her peers. It is a collage of garments that have been given to the artist either by relatives, her daughter, friends, and cultural workers, such as art historians and critics, that are sewed together. On top of these garments, she has stitched the names of women artists that have been influential to her practice. In this work, we can see the names of women artists that are a part of the MCA collection, such as Noemí Perez here at the top and also Vivian Suter.

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CAY: My Feminine Lineage of Environmental Struggle features the portraits of over 150 women environmental defenders from around the world, many of whom have been criminalized and murdered for speaking up. Here we can see the portrait of Berta Cáceres, who was a Honduran activist who was murdered. And we can also see a portrait of Soyla Ninco, an activist and fisherwoman who has been very influential to Carolina’s life and practice and whose throwing of the net into the river inspired a series of works in Be Dammed. For Carolina and these women, as well as many other women around the world, the fight for land and water rights is intimately linked to the fight against patriarchy.

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CAY: In this part of the exhibition, we can see the importance of portraiture as an artistic medium in Carolina’s practice as a way to produce knowledge around people and places. Here we have a self-portrait that Carolina made in 2002 when she was living in Puerto Rico. It’s the oldest work in the show and it really reflects her commitment to portraiture over the last two decades.

CAY: Alongside this self-portrait we have the Cosmotarraya Desbloqueada, or Undammed, which is also a type of self-portrait. The sculpture is made with a conical, handmade fishing net that is held together by a batea, which is a pan that is used by communities to harvest gold in the river. On top of the batea, you can see a Navajo sandstone. And if you look closely at this sculpture, you can see that there’s a small object hanging from the top. This object is actually an IUD, a birth control device, that Carolina removed from her body when she realized that it was also acting as a dam, blocking her menstrual flow. Through this work Carolina is encouraging us to look inside ourselves and to identify all of the different types of obstructions that we impose on ourselves both physically and mentally.

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CAY: Through her work, Carolina encourages us to approach our surroundings with increasing empathy, to place ourselves in the position of others, to see through their eyes with the understanding that we humans are not distinct from our environment. That we are a part of an interconnected and interdependent web of people, places, and living things. I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour and thank you so much for joining me.

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