"The Blessings of the Mystery" Questions the Notion of Preservation and Ownership
A different West Texas at UT's Visual Arts Center
Reviewed by Vivie Behrens, Fri., Oct. 29, 2021
Research, when presented as art, mines from the didactic to form the poetic, the subversive, and the speculative. Freed from the institutional confines of peer-review and verification, research-based art creates space for multiple conclusions and narratives; it rejects the conflation of the "scientific" with the incontrovertibly true or legitimate.
In "The Blessings of the Mystery" (currently on display at UT's Visual Arts Center), Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas display their research on West Texas. By assembling created and found objects, drawings, and video footage – and writing every exhibition label in the show – the artists pose a beautiful alternative, and perhaps a more wholly truthful understanding of the place, one that includes non-Western models of knowledge and history-making.
At the entry of the exhibition hangs a colored pencil drawing, Somi Se'k (Land of the Sun), which takes its title from the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe's word for the Chihuahuan Desert, Rio Grande Valley, and its delta. While the illustration may read as a glorified pictographic map, it notes important Indigenous and industrial sites that serve as repeated motifs throughout the show, and introduces the framework that Caycedo and de Rozas use to approach the area. In the drawing's accompanying text, the creators refer to the Somi Se'k as a "net of universes where the region's past, present, and future are still in conversation." In many of the following works, the artists return to this Indigenous concept as a source of artistic and empirical inquiry.
Seeing the West Texas landscape as a site of cosmological convergence directly contrasts Western constructions of property ownership and environmental extraction. Caycedo and de Rozas highlight how West Texas embodies this paradox in an adjacent work, Measuring the Immeasurable, which features various contraptions used to survey land – colored flags, safety vests, field notebooks, and rulers – hung at the center of the gallery. By reducing these tools to art objects, the artists point to the absurdity of parceling something as mysterious as nature into crude boundaries designed to increase profitability. They ask, "What is missed or lost through this process? Whose rights are forgone when this happens?"
These questions, and the notion of preservation – of land, identity, and natural resources – are explored through objects Caycedo and de Rozas culled from UT's archives. Particularly notable are 1930s drawings by Forrest and Lula Kirkland, who copied Indigenous rock art from the Lower Pecos to protect it from environmental and industrial threat. The drawings make a cameo in the show's lengthy, culminating video, "Teachings of the Hands," which discusses the exhibition's central ideas through the voice of Juan Mancias, the chairman of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.
Investigating Texan histories of colonization, manifest destiny, westward expansion, and environmental vulnerability is a delicate task, especially for two European-born artists. But in their thoughtful display of research, Caycedo and de Rozas let the viewer construct their own version of the region's history. And as they point out, who are we to give a land a name, history, and value anyway? Perhaps this question is the point.
Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas: The Blessings of the MysteryVisual Arts Center
Through Dec. 3.