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Rivers as the Teacher of Being


By Melis Dumlu

@melisxdumlu







Tyne Catchment Carolina Caycedo Land of Friends Photo: Tom Nolan. © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art


Standing at the crossroad of being, you might find yourself wandering between the past, the present and the future. Can you think of a time when you felt them simultaneously?


“Rivers run through our civilizations like strings running through beads”

A sentiment of how rivers are sacred from Olivia Laing who wrote ‘To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface’, a spiritual, poetic account of navigating heartbreak and a forty-two-mile expedition along the Ouse, the Sussex river. Rivers hold civilizations, histories and many intimate stories within themselves, constantly running through the curves of time and space. They are a crossroads of time, holding the past just beneath the surface while allowing you to take a step in and feel present.


Realities of any given life can be as mysterious as what the rivers carry through their ebbs and flow, holding beyond what is known and revealing what can be seen. Virginia Woolf once beautifully wrote in her book ‘Moments of Being’ ...

“the past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river”

‘Moments of Being’ is a call to action, a plea for us to realise our surroundings, our ecosystems, our communities and our planet.


Seeing the world for what it is, even just for a moment, is the great lesson any body of water can teach us. Experiencing the river as the living, energetic entity that it is, feeding the planet and everything it sustains, is an ideology that many indigenous communities hold close to their heart.


Patron Mono Carolina Caycedo Land of Friends Photo: Tom Nolan. © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art


Carolina Caycedo is an artist who researches waterways, their political and cultural impact, and their historical development. The Magdalena River, which indigenous communities call Yuma (the land of friends) shaped the oeuvre of Caycedo’s recent exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. The exhibition explored the indigenous ideology that water is the sacred essence of life and rivers are the veins of the planet, drawing together different communities and ecosystems, as well as touching on territorial defence, displacement, water protection, Land Back issues and reclaiming ancestral knowledge.


Caycedo examines the sociocultural and environmental impact of building dams on rivers. When the Columbian authorities initiated the idea of the El Quimbo Dam for the first time, the indigenous population of the region felt that their existence was denied. Caycedo works closely with these affected communities to inform her works, working collaboratively at first, then taking what she has learnt and experienced into the studio. Her process, which she calls “spiritual fieldwork”, develops relationships with human and non-human entities of a particular place, which have been transformed into works such as the ‘The Land of Friends’.


YUMA, or the Land of Friends Carolina Caycedo Land of Friends Photo: Tom Nolan. © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art


‘The Land of Friends’ is a vast collage of satellite images charting the building of the dam and how it changed the local ecosystem and topographies. Rivers can rise from unknown places, revealing and concealing various aspects of life. ‘The Land of Friends’ suggests a parallel between nature’s agenda with the local communities and the agenda of the authorities. It is hard to miss the contrasts of space. Satellite images reveal the river’s open spaces which are seemingly waiting for projects and are open for profit, which will deprive the place of its communities. The vision of what is sacred and irreversible for life and what makes a good profit becomes blurry. But rivers will continue to rise from hidden places and travel by routes that might not be there tomorrow.


'Caminemos Juntas (Let's Walk Together)' Carolina Caycedo Land of Friends. Photo: Tom Nolan. © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art


Tomorrow is floating underneath the surface of the rivers, and it is time that we embrace it. We must realise that we only have one planet, and it is we, together, that are responsible for taking care of it, as it has been taking care of us. If we keep avoiding seeing what is in front of us, we might not have anywhere to live but the hinterlands.


There is a complex relationship between land, human and time. There is also a need to build more-than-human relationships and boundaries in the era of climate emergency. Hinterland refers to a region inland, separate from any coast or riverbank and beyond cultural centres. Twelve artists are exhibiting in a group exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, each considering land and place as a complex layering of relationships. The exhibition ‘Hinterland’ engages with how landscapes have been occupied through processes of power, oppression and violence.


Alexandra Hughes Hinterlands 2022. Installation view, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris. © 2022 Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art


Sensory encounters with environments are at the core of one of the artists' practice, Alexandra Hughes. She photographs various landscapes on-site and returns to her studio to initiate an artistic response. She looks for visual ways to portray the personal, sensory experience she had when physically in the environment. Hughes describes her work as a new approach to photography, in which she tries to undo representation. “Unfixing the image”, as she calls it, means to take an image which points back to a specific place and reconsider what meanings could be derived from its combination with other matter and material.


Alexandra Hughes 'Corolla' 2022, Hinterlands 2022. Installation view, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris. © 2022 Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art


Alexandra Hughes 'Seep' 2022, Hinterlands 2022. Installation view, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris. © 2022 Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art


Any place that a body of water touches becomes alive; riverbanks are the blankets of nature, woven with the stories of our matrilineal heritage. Laura Harrington, another artist within the exhibition ‘Hinterlands’, makes work that investigates the relationship between humans and landscapes through fieldwork and collaborative practice. Her work encourages the idea of ‘upstream consciousness’, a framework that connects rivers and ecologies to global currents. She also comes back to the idea of time and how rivers teach us that time is not linear but exists at its own pace. ‘Vegetation Blanket #4’ is woven from felted wool, in collaboration with Michele Allen, Anne Vibeke Mou, Dawn Felicia Knox, and Sabina Sallis, where some of the artists within the exhibition shared open conversations about climate, human-landscape relationships, friendship and where things meet.


Laura Harrington 'Vegetation Blanket #4 (a wonderfully accidental anti-connection)' 2022. Made in collaboration with Michele Allen, Anne Vibeke Mou, Dawn Felicia Knox, Sabina Sallis. Hinterlands 2022. Installation view, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris. © 2022 Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art


Just like rivers, humans connect with what is visible as much as what is hidden. Cities are stripped from the memory of nature and riverbanks cease to exist in the natural flows of the rivers. What starts upstream is bound to reach downstream, and that is precisely what the ‘Hinterlands’ exhibition shows us. Landscapes are rooted in everybody's day-to-day lives; the river continues to flow and so does life.


The group exhibition ‘Hinterlands’ offers a new and urgent lens to look at landscapes and our relationship with them, with the artists sharing their own experiences. The show will continue until 30th April at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, and whilst you’re there, take a stroll along the River Tyne.

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