Berkeley and Brooklyn
Berkeley Art Museum, Pacific Film Archives, and Brooklyn Museum
The turbulent history of South America—from the advanced civilizations of the pre-colonial era up to the ravaged present—lies at the heart of Cecilia Vicuña’s work. A poet and humanist as well as a visual artist, she engages in a multidisciplinary practice that embraces historical and literary dimensions, as well as aspects of the popular arts and religion, which have acted for centuries as sources of resistance to colonialism. Her two recent exhibitions—“About to Happen” at BAMPFA and “Disappeared Quipu” at the Brooklyn Museum—covered four decades of work; together, they formed an index of notions fusing eco-feminism and political verities, memory and forgetting, the discarded and displaced, while documenting a career shaped by Vicuña’s involuntary exile from Chile during the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
Vicuña finds conceptual fuel in the animal, vegetable, mineral, and social worlds. For her, no substance is inert, nothing is exempt from consideration or subject to hierarchical distinctions. Her work is animist in essence. All things—humans, rocks, animals, and plants—possess spiritual and supernatural natures; they are all animated, alive in some form. Using the most basic of elements, including branches, bits of wood, thread, string, paper, stones, raw wool, and words, Vicuña creates works that experiment with contingencies rather than offer assertions.
Thematically, she jumps from the elemental order of things to the complexity of social and ecological conditions. Her work makes sophisticated linkages that retain the amazement of discovery, the magic and marvel of the natural world. It is autobiographical while also subsuming multiple shared experiences—expressing what it is to be a political refugee, to experience political repression, to be female, to be a South American with deep indigenous roots. Climate change, the fragility of the environment, and the increasing precariousness of human life on the planet are at the thematic core of Vicuña’s interests. Transitory and site-specific, her videos, installations, and performances are situated in the countryside, as well as in urban museums. They may originate with words or images that then develop into films, songs, sculptures, or collective performances. Her work is uncategorizable, combining activism, performance, video, music, and poetry.
The BAMPFA exhibition was notable not only for its two large installations, but also for its selection of over 100 objects that Vicuña refers to as precarios—small sculptures made from an assortment of discarded items, including pieces of string, sea wrack, bits of wood, thread, and feathers. These powerfully condensed works, some made decades ago, were displayed on two walls and a large, low platform in the center of the room—viewers had to stoop to see most of them. During the time of her exile, she thought of these small, fragile, contingent pieces in two different ways: as comments on how the Pinochet regime treated people like rubbish and as charms or amulets for resistance. In the first line of her poem “The Precarios,” Vicuña writes, “An object is not an object, it is a witness to a relationship.”
The BAMPFA exhibition originated in New Orleans, and the largest installation, Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood (2017), is rooted in two catastrophes that devastated the city—Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP Gulf oil spill of 2010. Vicuña, who has long been fascinated by water, was drawn to its deep influence on life and culture in Louisiana, connecting the entwining bodies of the Mississippi River and the oceanic Gulf waters, the fishing communities on the bays and bayous. Like the precarios, the 42-foot-long Balsa Snake Raft is made of discarded and scavenged items. Colorful bits and pieces of rope and plastic are crudely held aloft on fishing line above a linear arrangement of wood, bamboo, and other debris. Vicuña dedicated the piece to climate refugees living in and on the Gulf, especially indigenous communities.
Nowhere are such linkages more dramatically present than in her reactivations of the quipu, a powerful symbol of Chilean heritage infused with cultural knowledge. These are particularly symbolic objects—few quipus remain because the Spanish destroyed most of them. Always made of spun, plied, or waxed knotted string, quipus were used by the Inca to record numerical and social information as diverse as tax collection, census data, and property ownership.
Both exhibitions featured quipu installations constructed from unspun wool roving. At BAMPFA, Quipus Visceral (2017), without knots, dropped from floor to ceiling in concentric circles. With its blood-red, yellow, violet, and black strands, it references anatomy—suggesting veins and entrails. Quipu desaparecido (Disappeared Quipu) (2018) at the Brooklyn Museum took the quipu motif to an immersive level. Enormous, knotted columns of ivory wool were suspended 24 feet from floor to ceiling in a grid arrangement, their immense spills seemingly compressed between the building’s massive Greek columns, which acted as borders. A four-channel video of Andean textiles was projected onto the wool from different angles, moving up and down the columns from all sides. The video provided the major source of light on the installation, which also had a sound component in the form of a chanted song. Vicuña staged several participatory performances in the space to complete the work through community involvement. In a single monumental statement, Disappeared Quipu linked language, textiles, feminist forms, and history.