Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
March 9, 2018 – tbd
Fishing nets once connected the communities along Colombia’s Magdalena (Yuma) river with the water and its populations, but now the waters are so polluted the nets cannot be used for fishing. Carolina Caycedo, whose parents are Colombian, repurposes the nets as hand-dyed sculptures hung with found objects, almost like dreamcatchers. Her work exemplifies the ethic of reuse at the heart of the Whitney Museum’s current group show, Between the Waters. The show explores the interactions between personal experience and the external world, which encompasses the “natural” as well as the human-made. The land itself acts as a repository or archive for histories of human activity. For example, Lena Henke’s Dead Horse Bay, a ceramic cityscape, refers to the landfill where Robert Moses discarded parts of homes and lives while building the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Or in Bermuda, where Cy Gavin explores slave life on an island that had no indigenous population, a place, his research suggests, not meant to host life, where resorts have been built on top of slave cemeteries. The layers of history the artists unearth are also represented formally, as in Demian DinéYazhi´’s Rez Dog, Rez Dirt, where video footage of the artist’s grandparents’ land plays to a soundtrack of the artist talking about the rez where he grew up, while text from Joy Harjo’s (Mvskoke) poem “Returning from the Enemy” hovers across the images with lines like “I have forgotten my name in the language I was born to, forgive me.” Intense subjectivity, rather than a distanced or documentary gaze, pervades the work, suggesting, as curators Elisabeth Sherman and Margaret Kross write, that “our personal beliefs and ideological values cannot be separated from the material reality of a changing Earth.”
Some of the works are equally grounded in research without presenting as much context. Torkwase Dyson uses abstraction to explore how black and brown bodies have been exploited. Born in Chicago and raised in the South, Dyson is interested in what she terms “black spatial justice” and her grid-embedded paintings depict, geometrically, how urban architecture and infrastructure governs and restricts black populations. Erin Jane Nelson works with the landscape of the Gulf and South Atlantic coasts in creating ceramic souvenirs of the soon-to-be-submerged islands off the coast. She asks, in the process of climate change, “What monuments are undoing themselves?” Or, more frankly, how is “European colonialism or racist white supremacy…being consumed by the ocean—being swallowed up by the climate change that its hubris has put in motion”?
The artists in Between the Waters each engage directly with history and with the present state of the environment, its undoing, examining the relationship between human acts, ideology, and the environment. But more than blaming, censuring, or trying to solve ecological crises, they insist on their personal effects on living people, including the artists themselves.
Between the Waters opened at the Whitney March 9, 2018, with no end date announced at the time of this writing. The website for the show includes images of some of the works, a transcript and a recording of a roundtable discussion among the artists, and a guide to outside “Perspectives” on the issues the show explores, including essays by Donna Haraway and Rob Nixon.