Artist Delcy Morelos Wants You to Listen to What the Earth Has to Say

Artist Delcy Morelos Wants You to Listen to What the Earth Has to Say

“There is little light here,” the artist Delcy Morelos said, speaking in Spanish, during a tour of her current exhibition at New York’s Dia Art Foundation. “I made it that way, so that it would feel like a dream. One can learn, not only from seeing with your eyes or by grabbing with your hands, but also with your nose. When you stand here and stay a while, your eyes will adjust to this darkness, and you’ll see how the objects begin to emerge from the darkness.” 

Morelos was referring to Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), one of two newly produced installations now on view at Dia’s Chelsea space. The piece is so dimly lit that upon entering it, you might think you’re just staring into a void. The darkened gallery is also eerily quiet. “Silence is important because in silence you can hear her,” Morelos told me, referring to the work. “She speaks very softly.”

Though the piece is soundless and largely lightless, it is not scentless. Immediately, you can smell cinnamon and cloves, both of which recur in several of Morelos’s installations, like the one that debuted at the 2022 Venice Biennale, another large-scale installation made from aromatic earth. Both spices are references to the ofrendas (offerings) that farmers in the northern Andes of Colombia make “to give thanks and to nourish Mother Earth” during the harvest season, said Morelos, who was born in the country’s north and is now based in Bogotá. As part of the ceremony, the farmers dig a hole a meter into the ground, filling it with tobacco, rum, corn, sweets, and other products. Adding cinnamon is Morelos’s way of creating her own offering to the earth.

“Here, you are entering a space where the land is sacred,” she said. “We are remembering many aspects of the earth that we have forgotten. What I’m doing, in perfuming the works, is creating a way to recall that the earth is feminine.”

Delcy Morelos, Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), 2023, installation view, at Dia Chelsea, New York.

On view until July, Cielo terrenal is constantly changing, depending on the time of day and the seasons. (Subtle artificial lighting helps keep the work from being totally dark when there is a lack of daylight.) As one’s eyes adjust to the piece, a thick impasto formed from black soil, water, cinnamon, and cloves can be just barely seen covering the floors and walls. Discarded materials from past Dia installations also come into focus: wood from a Dan Graham piece, felt from a Robert Morris work, floor planks, sections of false walls. “Art can be created with these things that were almost garbage, so it’s art that is expressing itself from what it was,” Morelos said. “These objects still have the spirit of Dia, and now they have been reactivated.”

In creating these installations, Morelos was especially attuned to the history of Dia, long considered a beacon for the history of Minimalism and Land art. Its collection includes permanent installations like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah and Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room in SoHo, and it has helped create a canon of these movements that remains dominated by white men. Over the past decade, Dia has made significant strides in aiming to rewrite that history.

View of an art installation in which a pathway is carved into a floor that is painted with a soil. Several other objects are also place throughout.
Delcy Morelos, Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), 2023, detailed installation view, at Dia Chelsea, New York.

For her part, Morelos sees her Dia installations as a sharp contrast—if not a complete rebuttal—to Dia’s history and the artists whose work it has supported. “It is a feminine sculpture with feminine energy,” she said. “I am a minimalist. In minimalism, there is a silence that I like. There is an atmosphere of silence and nothing else. Not everything is told to you. You can go into an exhibition and search for what you think—you’re free to interpret what it is, if it’s ruins, an excavation, a flood. All of that is there.”

Cielo terrenal is bathed in black, and Morelos imagined it as what it would be like to experience entering Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square, which Dia curator Alexis Lowry has called “the origin of the monochrome” in Western modernism. The soil that lends the piece its blackness comes from Goshen, a town in the Hudson Valley about a half-hour away from Beacon, where Dia has an even bigger space. It has been sprinkled over several of the recycled objects and also used to form mounds and pyramid-like sculptures, giving the piece the look of an archaeological site. “Look at it like the ruins of Minimalism,” Morelos said, beginning to laugh. “If you came a thousand years from now and went to Dia Beacon, this is what you would find.”

View of an art installation in which several wood floor planks are painted with soil, as is the ground and wall.
Delcy Morelos, Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), 2023, detailed installation view, at Dia Chelsea, New York.

Morelos has worked with soil in a range of colors—brown, ochre, yellow, orange, blue, green, gray, and red—but her pivot to black came after the death of her father. “This work is called Cielo terrenal because we say, ‘We go to heaven when we die,’ but no, we don’t go,” she said. “Do you understand the difference? We don’t go up there. We go down here to the cielo terrestre [terrestrial sky]. This is our heaven. This is where we transform into other forms of life.”

The painted soil in Cielo terrenal stops about four feet high, rising to the same exact level that water did when it filled the gallery during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As Morelos was sourcing materials for the installation, she connected that deluge to the Colombian Amazon, which frequently floods, often to dangerous levels. Noting her times spent swimming and canoeing in that river, which is filled with boas, she said, “That energy of the jungle is here.”

View of an art installation in which hundreds of objects are different hues of of a black dirt.
Delcy Morelos, Cielo terrenal (Earthly Heaven), 2023, detailed installation view, at Dia Chelsea, New York.

Delicately placed throughout the installation are ceramics she made with the Indigenous Yucuna people using a similarly dark earth that comes from Colombia’s Amazonian region. “I wanted to bring objects made with soil from Colombia, but it is not possible to transport raw soil from one country to another,” Morelos said. “So, it occurred to me to make ceramics because it is cooked soil—that could make the journey.”

Several of the ceramics resemble forms that can be interpreted as either seeds or bullets. The ambiguity is intentional—just as a bullet can puncture the skin, a seed must pierce the earth in order germinate. In this way, Morelos sees this installation as entering an underground space. “New life always happens underground,” she said. “For me, the black earth is the most fertile earth. I am talking about fertility, about life, about gestation. These seeds are going to become plants, trees. These pieces that were about to be discarded are expressing their materiality here once again.”

These bullet-like seeds can also be read through the lens of recent Colombian history, which has been marked by decades of murders and the disappearances of thousands. “People are killed and buried, and we don’t know where,” Morelos said. “I understood that if you eat, for example, a papaya, that papaya could have been fed from a corpse that was buried underneath. Life manifests itself in other ways. In other words, the dead corpse is feeding a new life.”

A towering sculpture made of earth with thousands of strands of hay placed into its surface.
Delcy Morelos, El abrazo (The Embrace), 2023, installation view, at Dia Chelsea, New York.

If Cielo terrenal is subtle and still, El abrazo (The Embrace), the second installation at Dia, is its opposite: towering and powerful. A monumental structure made of a lighter shade of soil that floats almost a foot off the ground, the piece towers so high that it nearly pushes against the building’s vaulted wood-beam ceiling. Toward the work’s rear is an alcove that can be entered. It narrows as you go deeper, reflecting a literal embrace from the earth. “When I go to the forest, to the mountain, I feel that nature embraces me. I am nature,” she said.

This soil is recycled from the grounds of Dia Beacon and is dotted with hay that glows in the warm late morning light. Morelos and her team carefully embedded each strand of hay into the work’s surface. “Each one found its place,” she said. “I’ve always said that all the dirt in one of my works has to pass through my hands—I have to touch it.”

Morelos wants visitors to touch the work, too. A brochure for the exhibition includes a poem by Morelos that gives instructions on how to do so. Titled “Instructions to touch the earth,” it reads, in part: “Let the hands listen, see the smell of the earth / with the fingertips, let its taste be savored / by the skin.”

In adding the hay to El abrazo, Morelos said she “came to understand the work itself a lot. I understood that, here, something very big was done from the very small. Here, there is nothing big. Everything is united and woven like a basket.” She connected this to the teachings she had received from Isaías Román, an Indigenous knowledge keeper of the Uitoto people who taught Morelos his people’s cosmology. “According to their cosmology,” she said, “the universe is a basket, where everything is united, nothing is separated. The air you breathe in is the air that moves the hay in front of you. You are woven into the cosmos even if you don’t know it.”

A towering sculpture made of earth with thousands of strands of hay placed into its surface. It floats above the ground and pushes into the ceiling.
Delcy Morelos, El abrazo (The Embrace), 2023, installation view, at Dia Chelsea, New York.

Morelos’s decision to make the work appear to float came from a desire “to put the earth in a sacred place, in a positive space,” she said. “Normally, if you have dirt in your house or in your office, you are going to vacuum it.” This, on the other hand, is a huge mound of soil that can’t be swept away. But the move to exhibit it this way also grew out of her installation at the 2022 Venice Biennale, where Morelos found that visitors interacted with her art in ways she did not expect and that she wanted to understand through the making of El abrazo.

Her sculpture at the Biennale, a maze-like arrangement of dirt called Earthly Paradise (2022), was among the show’s more celebrated works. But during the exhibition’s preview days, she and the Biennale’s security guards witnessed people kicking the work and tearing pieces from it. She was shocked by this behavior—especially from art world professionals, who she said should know “how to behave in an exhibition.” (A Venice Biennale spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

After thinking on why people may react in this way, she realized that “people are used to stepping on the earth—to mistreating it, to mining it, to extracting oil in a bad way. I wanted to elevate it to a more sacred space, as if the earth were rising, floating, as if she had the power to rise. I also want people to feel challenged by how this was made: how did you make this magic?”

Detail of towering sculpture made of earth with thousands of strands of hay placed into its surface. It floats above the ground.
Delcy Morelos, El abrazo (The Embrace), 2023, detailed installation view, at Dia Chelsea, New York.

The artists Dia has historically supported have also tended to challenge viewers in vastly different ways. In works being shown in Beacon, Michael Heizer uses boulders that are so large, they feel as though they may crush you. Richard Serra has produced earth-colored spirals of steel that can be walked into, just as you can walk into El abrazo. But Serra’s feel claustrophobic when you enter them, and Morelos is after something softer.

“This piece is large, but it is ephemeral,” she said. “There could be earthquakes, floods, and nothing is going to happen to a Richard Serra work. This is made of earth—it’s so fragile. It has size and magnitude, but it also has a humility in the materials and a fragility. There’s something very feminine, very delicate. The embrace happens literally when you get closer and feel the earth surround you.”

When asked why she wanted to make El abrazo so big, Morelos answered wryly, “You could ask the same of Richard Serra or Michael Heizer. But think about my height. Short people often aren’t listened to. In the traditions in the Amazon or the Andes, we don’t hear them. They have to be very big for them to hear it.” She added, “I am creating an experience, an experience as if you are seeing the landscape. For me, it’s like making a sculpture of a mother goddess. A sculpture like this could have been done millions of years ago.”

The post “Artist Delcy Morelos Wants You to Listen to What the Earth Has to Say” by Maximilíano Durón was published on 01/17/2024 by