Embracing Oblivion: Liquid Agency in Colombian Art
por Jazmín Novoa
To disappear into deep water or to disappear toward a far horizon, to become a part of depth or infinity, such is the destiny of man that finds its image in the destiny of water.Gastón Bachelard
Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y aguaJorge Luis Borges
y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
saber que nos perdemos como el río
y que los rostros pasan como el agua.
It is frequently said that rivers in Colombia are silent witnesses of pervasive social and political violence. Hundreds of human bodies have been thrown into the rivers –but fewer than those found– as a usual and protracted practice of forced disappearance in the context of the armed conflict. Without a body to bury, people are prevented from mourning and performing the funerary rites that serve as memorials for the dead; between hope and despair, they remain in a state of impossible grief for their absent loved ones while searching for corpses or traces in the riverbanks. Rivers have certainly had a central role in people’s forced disappearance and systematic attempts to establish oblivion. However, how are we to understand their assumed silence?
Water is charged with cultural significance across the world when it comes to forms of mourning, and navigating rivers is usually related to journeys to the otherworld, to transitions between life and death. Ancient Greco-Roman myths describe at least five rivers in the underworld that souls are supposed to cross. One of them, the Lethe, which means oblivion, induced a complete memory loss in those who drank from its waters. Souls forgot everything about their previous lives, but such erasures were the condition of further embodiments. Once they could not remember anymore, they were ready to be born again in different bodies. Virgil relates in his Aeneid how Aeneas saw in Lethe’s water the historical future –however contradictory– of those who would be born after himself and who would build the Roman Empire. Lethe articulated past and future, life and death, oblivion of the individual and historical memory
Rivers articulate opposites because watery materiality embodies all but steady entities. The idea of a passive and objective river for us to control and to own endures no more; they gestate life, and they can destroy it. To think of the agency of water challenges any attempt to define or constrain it. Bodies of water are and stop being. They are transformative and transforming matter. They question our belief that something cannot be its opposite, that two bodies cannot occupy the same place at the same time. Water articulates life in circular processes, no matter our understanding ascribing discreteness and discontinuity.
In the last decades, artists have been interested in addressing issues related to the armed conflict in Colombia to understand it and render visible the dimensions of its unspeakable atrocities. In doing so, some have built a platform for victims to process their grief and for communities to state acts of collective memory. Thus, these artists resist oblivion. In what follows, I analyse works by three Colombian artists who focus on recent socio-political violence and establish acts of collective memory in collaborations with the victims of the conflict, while making visible –and audible– the role of Colombian rivers as a place of burial and death. When it comes to liquid materiality, however, something more than a passive receptacle of violence remains at stake. My aim here is to identify how rivers and watery matter become present in these works and how liquids share agency with each artist’s subjectivity. I will argue that it is precisely by embracing their liquidity that those works both address oblivion and provide a unique platform for collective memory. I stress that the artworks do not use water as a resource or an instrument, as violence perpetrated by armed agents did, but collaborate with water.
Echeverri’s Treno: The Chant of an Uncanny River
First, the voices of the river invade the digital space where there is nothing to watch. Here, a singing oriole. There, a violent stream. Nothing appears but the material and overwhelming absence whilst the turbulent river growing in dazing sounds reaches our ears. Then, the image of the river starts to rise from the lower side of the screens, slowly but hugely as the sound heralded. Suddenly, the Cauca River pervades our visual attention with two screens that face each other and seem to witness the two banks of those unnavigable and infinite waters. Sometimes, the screens mirror swirling streams, muddy waters, still flows; sometimes, they reproduce images of discontinuity, of a river that behaves differently in each bank and does not seem the same. The movements last 14 minutes, each of which echoes the eternity of relations, permeations, and indistinctly melted voices that the river conveys. On five occasions, human voices call a name, and the river amplifies and multiplies the screams. But there is no one to answer.
In this video installation, Clemencia Echeverri (Caldas, 1950) presents a sound, visual and affective register of a funeral song, Treno (2007). Among the Cauca’s streams, we see the superficial traces of the dead, a t-shirt, a pair of trousers, reached by a long stick that a man holds from a bank. Some floating clothes are not even recognisable, are shapeless. The streams bring back nothing more than anonymous traces leading nowhere, whereas voices call a body and scream their loss. No answer comes from the river, whose waters grow solid, impenetrable, unfathomable. The river changes. Their colours vary from a wild brown to a fiery red. We move from anguish to calm to despair, whilst the pictures of the river appear and disappear into a misty black screen. However, the sounds never stop. They either survive the images or announce them, while the grief remains suspended in the endless search for unburied corpses. The callings cross from one bank to the other, from one screen to the other. The river accumulates the screams. Perhaps it has absorbed, embedded, distorted, and then projected an infinity of cries that reproduces in loops, in parts, in syllables that never get to finish.
Treno underpins the impossibility of mourning ever taking place and, at the same time, it recreates a perpetual funeral song. It highlights the absence of those thrown into the river to sink and forced to abandon their homes, territories, bodies, and names. Without a body to bury, mourning ceremonies are impeded, and acts of memory are prevented. The funeral singing here, however, is not merely human. Water appears and makes the river the main character in this artwork. As pointed out by Gómez, Echeverri’s works
There is a social conflict in Colombia that involves rivers. Treno remind us of the role that the Cauca River has in practices of forced disappearance. However, this river does not merely cross Echeverri’s work to make us recall a violent act that uses it as a means. It acts as well. It brings traces back –perhaps, merely traces must be said–, echoes the mourning, acknowledges, and neglects the hope of those who lost someone. In other words, it both allows and resists oblivion. We see both banks but are incapable of crossing. We cannot stop the search. By being safe but feeling surrounded by turbulence, we are reminded of our fragility. Such an immensity perpetuates the mourning, our mourning, whereas the chant that grows between murmuring waters and memory evanesces.
According to Malagón, the mighty river is a metaphor for the human powers that disappeared those people and that we (the artist, the victims, and the spectators) cannot help. She wonders whether we should understand these natural forces as the cause of the disappearance, or whether we should consider human agencies as the main cause. But she leaves the question open as to the implication of each possibility. However, the dichotomy seems misleading beyond the haphazard distinctions between human actions and natural forces. Water, in this artwork, articulates human and non-human agencies, which renders our participation in the work paradoxical. These implications will be addressed in depth in the last section; before that, other two works that water agency develop in different ways will be analysed.
Diettes’ Río Abajo: Clear Watery Movements
On soft moving water, pieces of clothing quietly float, while the light passes through them and makes their colours vibrate. The water, stored on large glass panels, receives and animates those bits of clothing by shaping them with the absent human form. Unlike the chaotic clothes floating in Echeverri’s messy streams, these seem confusingly clean and tidy among translucid water. The lights passing through the glass and the movements of the liquid environment lend the objects a certain liveliness that imbues them with a religious aspect: they shine with a supernatural and astonishing gleaming, like that of some Christian paintings. Such a liveliness, paradoxically, reinforces the realisation of loss. Somewhere, amid deep waters, dead bodies deprived of these clothes are waiting to be found and mourned. This artwork highlights downward movements, but what does the river carry downstream anyways?
This assemblage, named Río Abajo or Drifting away (2008), departs from a painful fact: Colombian rivers are the largest cemeteries in the world. Erika Diettes (Cali, 1978) began this project by listening to testimonies of relatives of those who suffered forced disappearance in Colombia. They lent her some personal items that belonged to their loved ones and were preserved as relics, and then she photographed them beneath the water. The panels have been exhibited in churches, such as Nuestra Señora de las Nieves in Bogotá, where they take on an even more sacred appearance while re-contextualised in funerary ceremonies. There is no information about the victims nor descriptions of their disappearance. There is no sign of their identities. The large containers only evoke their absence. As Bell argues, Diettes
By putting those objects in water and placing the panels in churches, a continuity between humans and things arises. Those clothes’ owners are no longer there, but their absence is continually evoked by the water animating the items. Those objects become something more than symbols of the loss. When given to the artist, they are a renounce of the waiting and a possibility of initiating a collective act of mourning. Thus, the relationship between water and memory emerges in a special way, since water seems to crystallise in resting and peaceful movements what is not there to be remembered: figures, names, birthdates. The presence of water in this work refers, evidently, to the context in which people were forced to abandon their homes and their bodies. Those floating clothes are the recalling of the ones navigating in the blood-like disturbing waters of Treno. But these, unlike Echeverri’s, are not turbulent waters; they are rather a liquidity that carefully deploys the absence of those who are no more. We can imagine the same water of the Cauca River moving in different patterns, gathering matter, and offering traces and shards for an act of mourning to emerge.
Muñoz’ Proyecto para un memorial: Fading Liquids
Water appears –and disappears– in Muñoz’ work to highlight the very same fragility of memory. In Proyecto para un memorial (Project for a memorial) (2004-2005), Óscar Muñoz (Popayán, 1951) repeats the intention he had in various of his works: the image is there to be destroyed, a presence comes to remind us of its absence. Here, it becomes more evident how liquidity acts in processes of both oblivion and recalling, since water entails the means for the memorial to be initiated and stopped.
Five vanishing faces in five channels of an endless video sequence are projected upon two walls. Each face begins to be shaped, each eye seems able to stare at us, but that face and that gaze barely last. Soon each sign starts to disappear in front of us. There is no sound. That what was a recognisable human face becomes a white cement slab with no traces at all. The images cannot stop the movements of the drawings. A face is being portrayed while the other four are disappearing in a rhythm of their own. Each line of the portraits begins to fade as soon as the artist lifts the hand holding the brush from the heated cement surface because the water, used instead of ink, refuses to be captured. Thus, the portrait is never complete, as its image vanishes into absence whilst the artist continues his patient and tireless strokes. His hand comes back upon each channel, one by one, and the whole process starts again.
A memorial is a project that recreates the experience of losing, not a steady representation of the past. In his works, Muñoz is more interested in re-creating and manipulating processes than producing a finished representation. Those processes always involve paradoxical stages: life and death, forgiveness and recall. According to Acosta, Muñoz’ video installation addresses precisely the fragility of memory that resits oblivion but embraces the impossibility of keeping the past pure and unbroken:
Those faces remain anonymous, nameless, and those persons remain unknown. Their loss is irreparable, and there is no memorial act that can restore their identities. Thus, Muñoz does not attempt to overcome the oblivion related to individual identities but to represent the experience of loss, the phenomenology of disappearance by water, whereas recreating a space for a collective act of memory. Thus, the water in his brush works with him in intimate complicity. Together they create the im-memorial.
Liquid Presences and Collaborations with Water
Echeverri’s and Diettes’ works share an interest in articulating collaborations with victims of the armed conflict. Both artists refer to the experiences of those who lost their loved ones in acts of forced disappearance as the starting point: Echeverri received a call, a woman asking her for help after his son was missing. Diettes went all over the Cauca region, meeting people who looked for their disappeared relatives and listening to their experiences of violence across the region. However, art cannot resolve the social, political, or economic situation that violence introduced, and artists could do no more than listen, understand, and render visible the problem. By doing that, their works create unintended spaces for mourning. Thus, neither Treno nor Río Abajo depicts the atrocities enacted against the victims or their relatives. They do not seek to bring back the past as it happened or as the victims recall it. They do seek, first and foremost, a performative scenario for seeking, grieving, and losing.
As for Muñoz’ Proyecto, he did not work with victims but with pictures found in obituaries. Death and disappearance, nevertheless, are the main topics in his work. These three pieces do not offer any linear narratives to explain what happened to these people, what their stories were, and who they were. They assemble mere fragments and traces of a shared experience of atrocity. Comparative and critical analyses of them acknowledge some sort of paradox, dichotomy, or impossibility regarding the phenomenology of memory. They address memory in a non-prescriptive way: they do not depict the violent past, the identities of the dead ones, for us to remember, but recreate affective scenarios that stress the absence that such a past entails.
Although the artists did not initially intend to work with watery matter, water crossed their works and remains a common presence in these pieces. Its presence is not, however, accidental. It is deeply entangled with the ontological and aesthetic being of the artworks. Since Echeverri and Diettes are interested in the forced disappearance phenomenon in Colombia, rivers become a central agent for understanding the attempts to erasure people’s identities and to forbid funerary rites by concealing the corpses into the depths of waters or soils. Likewise, regarding the fragility of memory and the impossible actualisation of recalling, water serves as a powerful symbol. Water does help circulate violence and make the bodies unrecognisable corpses, but by doing that, it also articulates contradictory features: it guarantees life and spreads death. It forces oblivion while giving traces back and allowing forms of mourning. As Lethe, the river of forgiveness, the waters in these works imply a process of erasing individual identities as much as of channelling grief into memory.
Water, furthermore, does not come abstractly into existence in these artworks. It embodies a particular form, and it acts according to that form. It is a mighty river in Echeverri’s work, animating stillness in Diettes’, and vanishing memory in Muñoz’. There is a shared agency in them because water performs tasks of its own in the context of the artworks. It is blood poured into the turbulent river. It is tears that clothes absorbed and then mixed with the water in the panels. It is the artist’s sweat that slips down his hand and touches the water in his portraits. To be a body of water implies porosities, continuities, and permeations.
In Neimanis’ words:
In other words, water is the very material possibility by which the artwork comes to exist. We are largely made up of water. Water goes from the embodied practice of the artists to the river to our bodies. It crosses the rivers and the corpses that deposited their fluidity there; it goes throughout the hand of the drawer and the tears of the relatives, the bits of clothing, the unsteady images, the ephemeral memory. I do not believe, as Malagón argues, that water comes to act despite the artist’s efforts in Proyecciones. I prefer to think of a collaboration between artists and matter. Water presences bring to the fore commonalities: the fragility of memory, the impossibility of overcoming the absence, the fragmentary and discontinuity of traces, and the suspension of grief, in Acosta’s words. Thus, the corporeal materiality, and every form of art materiality, entangle processes of shared materialisation, which supposes a shift from representational to performative understandings of these art practices. There is no matter awaiting representation, but acting.
Lastly, when artists address the role of rivers and bodies of water in Colombia’s armed conflict, they also problematise the relationship between harmed people and water. The experience of the violence naturally changes how they relate to the environment in which such violence occurs. Diettes recalls a woman who claimed that she refused to enter the sea or the rivers waiting for them to return her children to her. Thus, a fragile relationship between bodies of water surges among violence, as long as discursive practices insist on pointing out differences between human and “natural” agencies. Rethinking water agencies and questioning the silence of the rivers conduces to detach water from an instrumentalising discourse that conceives it as a medium or resource, as well as a passive recipient of violence. This, furthermore, gives voice to a vitality intrinsic to materiality, to a vibrant matter, a thinghood that is capacious of acting. New understandings of liquid subjectivities are being brought to the fore in contemporary imaginaries, and artworks like those examined here serve greatly to such purpose. Thus, other voices to liquid powers grow to transform our agencies into ones that do not deny our watery belonging.
Acosta López, María del Rosario. “Las fragilidades de la memoria: duelo y resistencia al olvido en el arte colombiano (Muñoz, Salcedo, Echavarría).” In Resistencias al olvido: memoria y arte en Colombia, edited by María Del Rosario Acosta López, 23–47. Universidad De Los Andes, Colombia, 2016.
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs 28, nº 3 (2003): 801–831.
Bell, Vikki. “The Sigh of Sorrow and the Force of Art: On the Work of Erika Diettes,” Wasafiri 35, nº 4, (2020): 20-29, DOI: 10.1080/02690055.2020.1800234
Bennet, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
Chen, Cecilia, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis, eds. Thinking with Water. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.
“Donde nace el Cauca: memorias bajo el agua.” Rutas del conflicto – Ríos de vida y muerte. Accessed July 18, 2021. https://rutasdelconflicto.com/rios-vida-muerte/donde-nace-cauca
Gómez, Liliana. “Acts of Remaining: Liquid Ecologies and Memory Work in Contemporary Art Interventions.” In Liquid Ecologies in Latin American and Caribbean Art. Edited by Lisa Blackmore and Liliana Gómez. London: Routledge, 2020.
Gualdrón, Miguel. “Pensar con las manos. Otra mirada a las relaciones entre arte y memoria en la obra de Óscar Muñoz.” In Resistencias al olvido: memoria y arte en Colombia. Edited by María Del Rosario Acosta López, 49–76. Bogota: Universidad De Los Andes, 2016.
Latour, Bruno. “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene.” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (2014): 1–18.
Malagón-Kurka, María Margarita. “Arte en y más allá de la violencia en Colombia: cuestiones antropológicas y existenciales en obras de Clemencia Echeverri y Óscar Muñoz”. Karpa, 8 (2015), https://www.clemenciaecheverri.com/estudio/archivos/textos/articulos/varios/arte-en-y-mas-alla-de-la-violencia-clemencia-echeverri-y-oscar-mun%CC%83oz.pdf
Monroy Álvarez, Silvia. “Río Abajo: una exposición de Érika Diettes.” Antípoda 8 (2009): 197–200.
Neimanis, Astrida. Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
 See, for instance, entries on the website of the Ríos de vida y muerte project, which seeks to reconstruct the memory of the victims of forced disappearance along the banks of the country’s main rivers, especially “Donde nace el Cauca: memorias bajo el agua,” Rutas del conflicto – Ríos de vida y muerte, accessed July 18, 2021. https://rutasdelconflicto.com/rios-vida-muerte/donde-nace-cauca
 Clemencia Echeverri, “Treno, canto fúnebre”, video installation, 2007, https://www.clemenciaecheverri.com/studio/index.php/proyectos/treno. Accessed August 22, 2021.
 Liliana Gómez, “Acts of Remaining: Liquid Ecologies and Memory Work in Contemporary Art Interventions,” in Liquid Ecologies in Latin American and Caribbean Art, ed., Lisa Blackmore and Liliana Gómez (London: Routledge, 2020), 38.
 Gómez, “Acts of Remaining,” 36.
 María Margarita Malagón-Kurka, “Arte en y más allá de la violencia en Colombia: cuestiones antropológicas y existenciales en obras de Clemencia Echeverri y Óscar Muñoz”. Karpa, 8 (2015), https://www.clemenciaecheverri.com/estudio/archivos/textos/articulos/varios/arte-en-y-mas-alla-de-la-violencia-clemencia-echeverri-y-oscar-mun%CC%83oz.pdf
 Erika Diettes, “Río Abajo (Drifting Away),” 2008. Available at: https://www.erikadiettes.com/rioabajoobra. Accessed August 22, 2021.
 Vikki Bell, “The Sigh of Sorrow and the Force of Art: On the Work of Erika Diettes,” Wasafiri 35, nº 4 (2020): 21, DOI: 10.1080/02690055.2020.180023421
 Óscar Muñoz. “Proyecto para un memorial,” video installation, 2004-2005. Biblioteca Virtual del Banco de la República https://www.banrepcultural.org/oscar-munoz/memorial.html. Accessed August 22, 2021.
 María del Rosario Acosta López, “Las fragilidades de la memoria: duelo y resistencia al olvidoen el arte colombiano (Muñoz, Salcedo, Echavarría),” in Resistencias al olvido: memoria y arte en Colombia, edited by María Del Rosario Acosta López (Bogota: Universidad De Los Andes, 2016), 23–47.
 The concept of “the immemorial” is proposed by Jean-Luc Nancy, and Miguel Gualdrón delves into it regarding Muñoz’ works. Miguel Gualdrón “Pensar con las manos:otra mirada a las relaciones entre arte y memoria en la obra de Óscar Muñoz,” in Resistencias al olvido: memoria y arte en Colombia, edited by María Del Rosario Acosta López, (Bogota: Universidad De Los Andes, 2016), 49–76.
 As mentioned, while bringing about Treno, people called the disappeared by their names trying to find them between the river’s banks.
 Treno is literally a lamentation for the dead, a funerary chant.
 Diettes mentioned that when people lent her the items that belonged to the victims, they handed with them the hope of finding their loved ones. See Bell, “The Sigh of Sorrow and the Force of Art.”
 Gualdrón discusses the importance of this fact in “Pensar con las manos,” 54–56.
 Acosta, “Las fragilidades de la memoria”; Bell, “The Sigh of Sorrow and the Force of Art”; Malagón, “Arte en y más allá de la violencia en Colombia.”
 Acosta, “Las fragilidades de la memoria,” 24.
 Silvia Monroy Álvarez, “Río Abajo: una exposición de Érika Diettes,” Antípoda 8 (2009): 197–200.
 I borrow here Latour’s concept. See Bruno Latour “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (2014): 1–18.
 Astrid Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 2.
 Malagón, “Arte en y más allá de la violencia en Colombia.”
 On matter performativity, I follow Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs28, no. 3 (2003): 801–831.
 Barad, “Posthuman Performativity,” 807.
 Monroy, “Río Abajo,” 197.
 See Jane Bennet. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
Filóloga, filósofa y clasicista, con intereses de investigación en la conceptualización y representación del cuerpo en los textos y la cultura material de la antigüedad grecorromana y su diálogo con el mundo contemporáneo.