Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero (IHE lecturer and researcher in the Politics of Sanitation and Wastewater Governance), was invited to speak at the opening of the art exhibition “Delta” at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. She offered her views on the works and the importance of certain apparitions and symbolic disappearances in Latin America.
Meeting curators Beatriz Gago and Stephanie Noach, as they finished their book “Delta” was just a coincidence, since they were looking for someone interested in flows, sediments, and watercourses, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. However, as I delved into Delta, meddling in the conversations between all, curators and different artists writing their emails from diverse places around the world, I felt more and more connected to the project. I felt connected to the narration and imagination of water and disappearances in Delta. That is, the way in which words create “games of concealment, of appearing and disappearing” games in which different bodies disappeared in the midst of the moving waters.
In Delta, for example, Betty and Stephanie tell us about Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader whose work was determined by water as his performances featured tears, submergence, and him diving into a canal. Ader also conceived the conceptual art work in “Search of the miraculous” in 1975. It was to be a work registering his lonely sea voyage from Cape Cod, Massacusetts, to Falmouth, England (moving in the opposite direction of the original colonizers), but ultimately it also became an existential work: a few weeks after he set sail, Ader got lost on the tides of the Atlantic. After a year they found his sailboat near the coast of Ireland but without any traces of the artist’s body.
Betty and Stephanie also introduce us to the work “Disappearing element / missing element” of 2002 by Cildo Meireles, where water is the object that disappears instead of being the cause of the disappearance. Meireles placed street vendors in small pushcarts, selling popsicles made of pure water. These popsicles came in different colors and formats but they all had sticks with the same text. So before consuming them, in the uncovered area of the stick, it read “an element that is disappearing” (elemento desaparescendo); and after having consumed the popsicle, the hidden part of the stick revealed another sentence “missing element” (elemento desaparecido). “Disappearing element / missing element” referenced the finite nature of water.
The art work happened in the course of its consumption: while frozen water was ingested and then disappeared. What was left was just the stick, the support. Meireles described how he came up with the idea in 1974, while on the outskirts of the city of Goiânia in central Brazil. He had lunch at the house of his grandmother, and went for a walk by the bus station, where he saw, parked side by side some 15 pushcarts selling popsicles (picolés). The vendors were children, selling while playing between the buses parked at the terminal. As he approached them he noticed that there were 3 different prices for popsicles: one and a half reales for an ice pop (with milk); one real (for an icepop with fruits); and 50 cents for the “basic” one. Meirelles asked the kid, What is the 50 cent basic popsicle made off? The kid replied: “It is only water”.
Like Ader and Meirelles, who used water flows to invoke a past that disappeared and the disappearance of water, Colombian artist Óscar Muñoz worked with different states of water to invoke the missing and built metaphors that made reference to specific social, political and natural contexts. These contexts belong to the history of Colombia, the country of my birth. In one of his works, small mirrors hang from the walls of a museum or gallery. When you approach them closely, and breathe (and with your exhalation blur the mirror), you do not see your reflection anymore. Instead the face of a missing Colombian person reveals itself (and after a few seconds disappears again). The installation, which has been presented in various places around the world, is called Aliento (breath) and was imagined by Muñoz over two decades ago.
The work becomes important on the International Day of Forced Disappearance, which was commemorated a few months ago, on August 30th. On that day, the Colombian Center for Historical Memory remembered the 82,998 Colombians who disappeared between 1958 and 2017 throughout the country’s armed conflict. The Center also emphasized the complexity of this crime that is different from a homicide as victims are deprived of freedom, go missing, and their bodies are seldom found. Disappearances are perpetrated in order to intimidate or terrorize the community or social group to which the victim belongs.
Gonzalo Sánchez, director of the Memory Center, highlighted “the many difficulties and obstacles that families have been encountering for decades in the search for their loved ones”; “the weak coordination and communication between state institutions”, “the chaotic handling of unidentified bodies in the cemeteries of the country, the insecurity to carry out forensic work in some areas of the country, the lack of psycho-social support and friendly attention for families, and the urgent need to strengthen joint work to find and process those responsible for the disappearance and death of the victims”. Sánchez also stressed “the invisibility and lack of awareness of the problem of forced disappearance in Colombian and international society.”
In Cauca, the region where Oscar Muñoz was born, 3.908 victims of forced disappearances have been registered in official data between the 1980s and 2017. There, the war between the guerrillas and the state devastated towns inhabited by indigenous groups, Afro-Colombian population, and peasant communities. In turn, the right-wing paramilitary assault on the region, which took place with the collaboration of sectors of the army, consolidated processes of land and water-grab. Massacres were committed, communities were victimized and displaced, and many of their leaders went missing. El Nilo Massacre was an attack perpetrated against the indigenous Nasa people in the municipality of Caloto, Cauca on December 1991 by members of the National Police and armed paramilitaries. After having been displaced from their territories, the Nasa people had been organizing pacific occupations on plots of land in northern Cauca.
As a result, today the Cauca region is planted almost entirely with sugar cane. Most of its groundwater is allocated to sugar mills. The predominance of large sugarcane plantations owned by a small group of families, to produce mainly bio-fuel, represented the end of traditional subsistence farming. The sources of work that the sugar mills initially generated have been decreasing as a result of the mechanization process of the sugar cane cutting and harvesting processes. Communities who survive in small plots demand access to land and water as new generations are forced to work as day laborers or to engage in illicit activities such as coca growing and illegal mining.
Throughout this dispossession process the air and the water have been irreversibly affected. Continuous mono-cropping requires tons of fertilizers and pesticides. Uniform crops, where the same species is grown year after year are more susceptible to pests. Moreover, before chopping the cane with large machetes, workers have to burn huge swaths of cane fields to remove dry leaves and drive off snakes and other creatures. The cleared fields are easier to cut by hand, but the massive burns create choking clouds of smoke and ash. Burning cane fields releases large amounts of nitrogen, making air pollution worse in the region.
Perhaps here it is worth remembering another one of Muñoz’s works, which is also part of “Delta”. In Re/trato (portrait) Muñoz draws his own portrait, with brush strokes of water, on a cement pavement in full beam of the sun. However, the scorching heat prevents the portrait from taking shape, because while the artist is drawing (he draws his own eyebrows, eyes, and mouth) the water evaporates and the features are erased, one by one. In the case of departments such as Cauca, the people disappeared, their dreams and plans to pursue happiness went missing too. Throughout the war, their routines, paths and livelihoods also evaporated. Big landowners drained their aquifers, diverted their rivers, poured pesticides into their soils. Pesticides that were then washed away by the rain.