Haunting Views of a Planet Declining Faster for Some Communities Than for Others
Environmental awareness and social justice mix provocatively at the Whitney Museum’s new show, “Between the Waters”
Carolina Caycedo’s nets hang and sway from the ceiling of the Whitney Museum of American Art, each one distinct in shape, color, and composition. They range from softly rounded to elongated and geometric; some are white, while others have been dyed in bright oranges and reds. Caught in their knotted structures are objects that speak to a vibrant world: embroideries, seeds, dried plants, candles, framed religious images, and musical instruments. “They are atarrayas, fishing nets that you throw by hand, and I think super beautiful,” says the artist. “They were given to me by fisherfolk in Colombia near the Magdalena River, not far from where my father has a farm.”
Caycedo calls the hanging sculptures Cosmotarrayas, an amalgam of their name in Spanish and the word cosmos, since each one encompasses its own small world. And they are indeed beautiful. Like the work of the five other artists in a new exhibition titled “Between the Waters,” which opened at the New York City museum on March 9, Caycedo’s art is inspired by a common theme: the impact of ecological damage and abuse on communities.
Organized by assistant curator Elisabeth Sherman and curatorial assistant Margaret Kross, the exhibition focuses on the precarious state of the environment. “The idea for the show came out of talking to artists and listening to their practices,” says Sherman. “We started to notice several artists working on themes that connect environmental issues with civil rights and human life.”
Caycedo, for example, has created several projects that refer to the construction of hydroelectric dams in South America and the consequences for local populations. Another artist, Lena Henke, contributed sculptures that tell the story of New York City neighborhoods that were gouged from the map in the 1930s by city planner Robert Moses to make way for expressways.
The show includes the work of two painters: Cy Gavin, an artist whose colorful maritime canvases are inspired by his father’s native Bermuda and its historical role in the Atlantic slave trade; and Torkwase Dyson, whose abstract works are drawn from scientific drawings of water tables. Meanwhile, Atlanta artist Erin Jane Nelson conjures octopuses in textile collages created out of transparent fabric, spices, and dried foliage. “The motivation comes from environmental anxiety,” Nelson says. “Dealing with climate change, ocean acidification, and other emerging and enormous threats is not particularly uplifting, but I try to make empathetic narratives and objects that make space for catharsis and reconciliation.”
Sherman says that several of the artists mentioned Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor as a major influence on their work. The book, by Princeton humanities and environment scholar Rob Nixon, examines climate change, deforestation, oil spills, and war in the global south. “They are interested in how the politics of the land plays out on marginalized communities,” she says. “It’s not ‘kumbaya,’ but there is a message of ‘We’re all in this together,’ along with a challenge to the notion that humans have a right to dominate the land.”
Demian DinéYazhi´ is a Navajo artist who grew up in Gallup, New Mexico. His work at the Whitney, which combines video and text, originated in his “increasing sense of alienation, frustration, and anger” at recent politics, including the Trump administration’s decision to build the Dakota Access Pipeline despite protests at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. “Indigenous land has always been political,” DinéYazhi´ says. “On the reservation I come from, the land has always been under threat, from the issue of water rights to extraction industries like coal and uranium.”
On view in “Between the Waters” is DinéYazhi´’s 2010 Rez Dog, Rez Dirt, in which the artist, now based in Portland, used his iPhone to capture video of his grandparents’ land and added narration about his feelings of disconnection. “It is about being tied to who I am, but realizing my current life is about migration,” he says. Another piece, Burying White Supremacy, created by DinéYazhi’ with artist Ginger Dunnill, combines drone photography taken on a Navajo reservation superimposed with conceptual instructions on “how to bury white supremacy.” Stark but ultimately hopeful, the piece depicts the green shoot of a plant emerging from a barren landscape strewn with gray tumbleweeds. “I’m trying to show that we have ways of adapting,” the artist says, “and of spreading our intelligence.”
“Between the Waters” is currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and is accessible to the public for free.
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