When London-born Columbian artist Carolina Caycedo begins a new project, she embarks on a process she describes as “spiritual fieldwork.” She hopes to distance her work from the field of ethnographic research, in which the researcher deliberately situates themselves as a neutral outsider. Instead, Caycedo combines her structured system of scientific research and interviews with a more personal and immersive practice of forging connections with people and places on a spiritual level. As the title of her new solo exhibition at BALTIC suggests, ties of friendship and empathy are key to the artist’s ways of working.
Much of the work in Land of Friends (which constitutes Caycedo’s first European survey exhibition) is drawn from the artist’s long-term project “Be Dammed (Represa/Repressión)” (2012–ongoing). This major multifaceted collection of work examines the sociocultural and environmental impacts of building dams on rivers and campaigns for the rights of both watershed-dwelling peoples and rivers to self-determination.
This project is part of an ongoing attempt to unlearn the colonial gaze and offer alternative ways of seeing, representing, and relating to peoples and places. She argues that visual artists can often become complicit in the reduction of complex ecosystems to “landscapes” in a purely pictorial sense, conforming unquestioningly to European art historical formats that create distance between human viewer and nonhuman subject. Instead, Caycedo wants to place human beings and human actions within the systems she studies.
Some of the most striking works in the exhibition come from the “Water Portraits” series (2016–ongoing), in which Caycedo digitally stitches together multiple images of a river and its surroundings. The resulting “portrait” is printed on a long continuous ream of translucent fabric and suspended above the viewer’s eye level. The works play with expectations regarding portrait and landscape, in terms of orientation, format, and subject matter, eliding the artificial distance between person and place. In these fluid, dramatic images, the artist attempts to both recognize and celebrate the personhood and agency of rivers.
A similar technique of continuous printing can be found in the accordion-fold publication “Serpent River Book” (2019). Laid out on a sinuously shaped table in the exhibition as a sculptural object, the work can also function as a conventional book. The piece can be reproduced at scale, which Caycedo sees as a way of offering something back to the communities with which she works. As well as being a vehicle for presenting the artist’s research and findings, “Serpent River Book” also functions as a tool for workshops and performances, which can take place with or without the artist’s involvement.
A number of the works in the show refer to a Colombian river named the Magdalena (in Spanish) or the Yuma (by local Indigenous people). Caycedo lived near this river for a time, and was prompted to start making work about the fate of the watercourse and the people who rely on it when the authorities initiated a project to dam the river. Many residents felt that the consultation process put in place by the dam-builders was insufficient and denied large numbers of local people either a voice or a chance for compensation.
“YUMA, or the Land of Friends” (2014) is a huge collage of satellite images charting the building of the dam and the ways in which it has changed the local ecosystem, topography, and vegetation. Meanwhile, the video “Spaniards named her Magdalena, but natives call her Yuma” (2013) convincingly suggests parallels between public order management systems and water management systems (such as dams and weirs). The split-screen film brings to life the choreographies of control designed to regulate the movements of human bodies and bodies of water. Narrated by the artist in both English and Spanish, the voice-over uses whispering to disrupt the notion of an authoritarian narrative voice.
The video includes shots of Caycedo’s friend, a member of the local Indigenous community, throwing a traditional fishing net into the water, demonstrating the embodied, traditional forms of knowledge tied up in the threatened ecosystems and geologies of the river. Caycedo emphasizes how extractivist economies take intangible things, such as the knowledge stored in the bodies of colonized peoples, as well as raw materials. In the face of destruction, for the Yuma/Magdalena river’s traditional fisherpeople, everyday actions become gestures of resistance.
This theme of resistance is key to the second half of the show, in which Caycedo expands on her ongoing interest in the cultural materials of protest, such as flags and banners. The exhibition includes her 2019 work “My Feminine Lineage of Environmental Struggle-Expansion 1,” a banner featuring a series of portraits of women environmental leaders and activists. Like most banners, it is suspended on a series of poles which would make it impossible for one person to present it on their own, pointing to the collective creativity and engagement of protests and resistance movements.
Caycedo’s work sits between two banners borrowed from the Women’s Banner Group, which brings together and celebrates women’s organizations in North East England. Both banners were produced for the Durham Miners’ Gala, an annual march traditionally organized by coal miners’ trade unions, celebrating local people and industries. Women only began to participate in the Gala in 2018; these banners, designed for that event, highlight the achievements of women working collectively in the local area.
This link to the locality is important to Caycedo who, together with curator Irene Aristizábal, was keen to find links between her work on remote South American rivers and the experiences of BALTIC’s visiting audiences. To this end, she has produced a new large-scale drawing titled “Tyne Catchment” (2022). Executed in the accessible medium of colored pencil, the drawing speaks directly to the ecology, myths, and culture of the River Tyne, which flows right outside BALTIC’s walls and connects many communities in the North East of England. The piece effectively anchors the exhibition in the local landscape and prompts audiences to consider the environmental and sociocultural implications of a river many might take for granted.
Carolina Caycedo: Land of Friends continues at BALTIC (Newcastle, UK) through January 29, 2023. The exhibition is curated by Irene Aristizábal.