Embraced by an Amniotic Earth: Delcy Morelos at Dia Chelsea

Delcy Morelos, "El abrazo (The Embrace)," 2023. © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York.

In El abrazo, Delcy Morelos’s site-specific solo exhibition at Dia Chelsea in New York, two earthworks swell against the perimeters of two discrete, darkened rooms, threatening to usurp their containment. In the first, a mud-soaked landscape bestrewn with intricately incorporated sculptural objects (such as vessels, pipes, and other shapes) recalls a vast archeological excavation site; in the second, an immense earthen mound evokes an unexhumed monument. Taken together, the titular work El abrazo (The Embrace, 2023) and the accompanying earthwork Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven, 2023) can be read as abstract propositions for cultivating—in the words of Morelos’s teacher, Uitoto elder Isaías Román—an “amnionic” relationship between the body and the earth. If colonial capitalist models of land engagement can be framed primarily as projects of extraction—a violent siphoning of indigenous resources—Morelos’s exhibition here can be understood as a project of infusion, extraction’s antithesis. Instead of making work from and of the earth—a colonial mindset that posits the land as an extractable artistic resource—Morelos, who is of Indigenous Colombian descent, creates sculptures with the earth, as if collaboratively engaging with the somatic power of an ancient being. By nodding to organic forms of reciprocity prevalent in nature, her project embraces the permeable boundaries between our bodies and the natural world.

Delcy Morelos during the installation of El abrazo (The Embrace), 2023, at Dia Chelsea, New York. © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Don Stahl.

A living system founded on reciprocal cooperation is far from a radical conceit—these exchanges function as the lifeblood of every ecosystem the earth has ever known. It’s a well-trodden conception that a symbiotic relationship exists between the earth and the mortal body: this conviction buttresses untold rituals, myths, and belief systems and can be traced back to the first murmurs of human civilization. Within the dominant paradigms of our Western capitalist culture, however, this earth-body connection is framed as tenuous at best—it arguably begins and ends with our practice of burying the dead and is otherwise systemically devalued in daily economic life. In many ways, this devaluation represents an anthropological anomaly set in motion by the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, which, in dismantling agrarian traditions, undermined the interconnections between the body and the natural world. In a number of non-Western cultural practices, however, the belief in this venerable interrelationship persists, as it is often directly rooted in discrete spiritual cosmologies. For example, in the creation myths from both the Hopi and Yoruba cultures (North America and West Africa, respectively), human bodies were thought to have been molded from soil by deific powers and then infused with life, an alchemical transformation that illuminates the sanctity of the earth. Likewise, for the Indigenous people of the Colombian Amazon, analogous mythologies of a consecrated landscape directly translate to practices of environmental stewardship, reinforced by the premise that the earth itself is an extant, breathing body.

Over the course of her thirty-year career, Morelos has been deeply informed by the mythologies and practices of Indigenous groups from the Colombian Andes and Amazon (such as the Uitoto, indigenous to southern Colombia). Her earth-hewn sculptural installations reflect the distinct Uitotoan cosmovision that, as Morelos writes in the forthcoming catalogue, “the universe ‘is a basket in which everything that exists is woven.’” El abrazo enacts this philosophy of interwovenness by explicitly tethering the body to, and infusing it with, the earth. A massive, heaping mound of soil peppered with intermittent stalks of grass, the earthwork’s loose pyramidal shape recalls ancient ziggurats, burial mounds, and earthen adobes, pointing to the myriad ways in which mud has functioned as a material for cradling, entombing, and housing the human form, both dead and alive. At the same time, the work’s economy of materials and concise visual composition directly nods to languages of sculptural abstraction, a consistent quality of Morelos’s work and a reminder that, even as she undermines the colonial logic of the Western canon, its aesthetic tropes nonetheless inform her practice.

Delcy Morelos, El abrazo (The Embrace), 2023 (detail of installation view, Dia Chelsea, New York). © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Don Stahl.

More than just an archeological monolith, however, El abrazo can also be interpreted as a body in its own right. Morelos, in fact, encourages viewers to interact with it as such, writing in an accompanying brochure, “Let the hand rise and fall, gently caressing the surface … To touch the earth is to be touched by her.” As if to accentuate El abrazo’s corporeality, Morelos carved a passageway into the backside of the work, creating an ever-narrowing triangular corridor that allows viewers to physically enter it—an experience akin to entering an earthen birth canal. The soil, infused with clove and cinnamon, both renowned antifungals, as well as copaiba, a resin extracted from the eponymous South American tree, is lushly fragrant, adding olfaction to an already sensorial viewing experience. Here, as the viewer enters the work, the work likewise enters the viewer, creating a symbiotic moment of bodily embrace, just as the phrase “el abrazo” suggests. Crucially, the deeper one descends into the innards of the sculpture, the more the work’s humid soil functions as an auditory insulator, enveloping the viewer in an immersive, haptic silence—a silence that nestles the body in an “amnionic” embrace. For me, this act of enfoldment catalyzed a visceral experience of being infused, both physically and conceptually, with a primal terrestrial power, as if my presence there had been recognized and acknowledged by another living being.

Morelos’s embrace of the life-bestowing properties of earthen matter is integral to the Uitotoan worldview, which posits the earth as a living mother. This notion of human-terrestrial lineage, in conjunction with the fact that El abrazo quite literally sprouts stalks of grass from its loamy surface, relates to what postcolonial studies scholar Radhika Mohanram refers to as the idea of “autochthony,” or literally, “springing out of the soil.” This phrase, originating from the Ancient Greek autochthon (auto-, meaning “self,” and chthōn, meaning “earth”), describes the state of being indigenous to and thus intrinsically connected to the land of a particular place. Mythologically speaking, autochthon can also refer to human beings birthed directly from the earth, rather than from a human womb. Morelos’s work nods to both interpretations, at once pointing to terrestrial forms of Indigenous knowledge and history (in Cielo terrenal, for example, she incorporates objects made from native Colombian soil using traditional ceramic firing techniques), as well as to the notion that the earth, in fact, cradles us all.

Delcy Morelos, Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), 2023 (detail of installation view, Dia Chelsea, New York). © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Don Stahl.

In Cielo terrenal, a mélange of interwoven elements introduces gestures of dispersion; an accompaniment to El abrazo’s embrace. Low light drapes the scene in darkness, creating a perpetual feeling of dawn or dusk. Nearly disappearing into the twilight, an opaque layer of textured mud spreads across the floor and creeps up the walls, creating a tideline that encircles the perimeter of the room (this line corresponds to Hurricane Sandy’s high-water mark, gesturing toward both past and future environmental catastrophes). A narrow pathway cuts into the surrounding monochromatic landscape, which is dotted with abstract accumulations of sculpted forms (all either shaped by or encased in soil): planks, bricks, cellular-like clumps of clay, vessels resembling seedpods or mummified bodies, pipes and tubes, orbs and pellets, and other amorphous, handwrought shapes, several of which are interspersed with pebbly piles of dirt. Like distinctive life-forms fertilized by seeds scattered in the wind (or by plentiful globs of dung, as some tiny sculptures here insinuate), these dispersed materials appear to have sprouted from the earth that surrounds them. The resulting panorama oscillates between the cartographic and microscopic, at once resembling an aerial landscape or immense burial site and a magnified view of sliced tissue. The darkened space also suggests a subterranean cavern—an amniotic chamber of sorts, tucked into the body of the earth—replete with a covert, thriving ecosystem. Here, multitudinous objects cohere into a single interwoven universe, which folds together haptic references to both our inner and outer worlds. If colonial models of extraction inherently rely on duality and separation, a tearing away of one thing from another, Cielo terrenal rejects the concrete dualisms and binaries of human versus nature and self versus other, suggesting that these categories remain intrinsically porous and intertwined, and thus fundamentally inextricable from one another.

Delcy Morelos, Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), 2023 (detail of installation view, Dia Chelsea, New York). © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Don Stahl.

For Cielo terrenal, Morelos created many of the work’s vessel and pod sculptures in the Colombian Amazon using traditional Yukuna pottery techniques; she then juxtaposed formal arrangements of these objects with soil gathered from a site in the Hudson Valley near Dia Beacon. In addition to this soil, which cakes the floor and walls, Morelos incorporates actual building materials from previous Dia installations, including mud-crusted wooden planks and silty, Robert Morris–like slabs of felt. Without this explicitly stated in the exhibition brochure, however, it would be difficult to deduce the provenance of these gathered forms by eyesight alone. And while the work positions these items as equanimous sculptural elements, it nonetheless embraces their quiet dialogic and historical juxtapositions. Here, as Dia itself acts as the museological steward for canonical works of Western land art, including Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room and The Lightning Field (both 1977), Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76), and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Morelos’s soil montage presents a necessary revision to historiographic narratives of the earthwork movement, long defined in specific relation to American and European art historical pedagogies. By infusing the material and conceptual underpinnings of her work with elements of her own Indigenous cosmology, she eschews the extractive methods and thought processes espoused, knowingly or not, by some of the Western artists (i.e., Michael Heizer and his desert gouges) who have defined the canon.

Exterior view of Delcy Morelos, “El abrazo (The Embrace),” 2023. © Delcy Morelos. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York.

While Morelos’s work specifically embraces the Uitotoan conception of an interwoven universe, this doesn’t necessarily amount to a steadfast rejection of every Western artist who has similarly sculpted with the land. In fact, Morelos’s oeuvre dexterously bridges many discrete histories: her work just as fruitfully engages with Yakuna ceramic traditions and with the somatic sculptural practices of an artist such as Ana Mendieta as it does with the earth-centric artworks of Alice Aycock, Michelle Stuart, and Mary Miss, all of whose work exhibits a sense of reverence for their chosen earthly materials. Poised between these multithreaded lineages—and between the supposed binaries of interior and exterior, human and nature, life and death, and night and day—Morelos’s earthworks quietly balance sophisticated questions of scope and scale. In rejecting the extractive, for example, her exhibition at Dia dually embodies both intimacy and expansiveness. While El abrazo functions as an immense monolith that dwarfs the body of the viewer, it simultaneously serves as a womb that cradles the body in a moment of intimate embrace; and while the hand-formed objects in Ciel terrenal index the artist’s cradling and shaping of the earth, its mud-soaked tideline simultaneously points to the environmental calamities that will continue to indelibly mold us. The tether between our bodies and the natural world is primordial yet precarious. We sprout from the soil that we either nourish or poison, and the earth, in turn, invariably wields its agency over us.


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