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For over Five Decades, Cecilia Vicuña Has Made Prescient, Rebellious Art

Portrait of Cecilia Vicuña by Daniela Aravena. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

Portrait of Cecilia Vicuña by Daniela Aravena. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

has incredible foresight. The poet, visual artist, filmmaker, and performer has spent her entire career, starting in the 1960s, making art that addresses the political and social issues that have come to define our time. Her multimedia works on climate change, deforestation, human rights, exile, women’s rights, and cultural homogenization unite lyrical forms with radical ideas. It has taken decades, though, for the rest of us to catch on to her vision.
“Everything that I had been doing for 50 years, it’s been mostly invisible,” Vicuña told me recently. “Then all of a sudden, boom! It comes out like an eruption.”
Cecilia Vicuña, installation view of “About to Happen” at The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 2019-20. Photo by Daniel Bock. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

Cecilia Vicuña, installation view of “About to Happen” at The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 2019-20. Photo by Daniel Bock. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

Vicuña began this year with two retrospectives: “About to Happen” at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami and “Seehearing the Enlightened Failure” at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. Her work is the focal point of Tate Modern’s ongoing exhibition “A Year In Art: 1973,” which uses art to tell the story of the 1973 military coup in Chile, Vicuña’s native country. The pieces included demonstrate Vicuña’s decades-long aesthetic protest against violence and inequity.
When we spoke, Vicuña was also working on pieces about the destruction of the Amazon and planning for two upcoming shows in Brazil: one at the Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, and the second at the São Paulo Museum of Art. She was also working on a project about the privatization of water—a longtime concern of hers.
Vicuña noted that the last time she had a solo show in Chile was in 1971. “In Latin America my work has really been marginalized. It’s like it never existed,” she said. When Vicuña had her first solo shows in the U.S. in the 1990s, she told the New York Times, no one came. “It was about climate change, and no one was interested in climate change then,” she said.
Vicuña was born in Santiago in 1948. Her family, of mixed European and Andean ancestry, was full of artists. “Since I was a little girl, I was simultaneously writing, drawing, performing, and painting. All of these are languages, they all speak to each other,” she said. She described growing up in a house where books and art were freely available, and becoming interested in how poetry reconnects people with the natural world.
Cecilia Vicuña, installation view of La Noche de la Especies, 2009, in “About to Happen” at The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 2019-20. Photo by Daniel Bock. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

Cecilia Vicuña, installation view of La Noche de la Especies, 2009, in “About to Happen” at The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 2019-20. Photo by Daniel Bock. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

As a teenager in the 1960s, Vicuña became, like many of her peers, deeply involved in activism and Chilean politics. In 1967, she co-founded the Tribu No collective, a group of poets and artists who staged political actions in Santiago. Vicuña traces the origin of her creative life to an epiphany she had at age 17, on a beach in Concón, Chile, when she suddenly became aware of how all objects and actions are connected. She shoved a stick upright in the sand, creating the first of what she calls “palitos,” or “small sticks.” They have become part of an ongoing project, called “Lo Precario” (1966–present), in which the artist intervenes in the natural landscape: She leaves carefully tethered and positioned shells, sticks, plastic, and glass to be embraced and destroyed by the elements.
In 1972, Vicuña left Santiago for London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. The military coup in Chile the next year made it difficult for her to return, and she has been living in exile ever since. She said the political turmoil marked a critical moment in her artistic and personal formation. In 1974, she co-founded the organization Artists for Democracy, which asked artists to create and donate works to auction in support of democracy in Chile. She also helped organize The Arts Festival for Democracy in Chile, which took place for two weeks that same year in London. Her political works are the focus of “Seehearing the Enlightened Failure,” which includes her paintings and writing about communism and Vladimir Lenin, pacifist musicians Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin, and war protests in Vietnam.
Vicuña’s work has embraced an international orientation since the ’60s. Throughout the decade, as the civil rights movement erupted in the U.S. and war raged in Vietnam, the artist and her fellow Chileans felt the reverberations of such struggles on a personal level. “We experienced them as part of what we were experiencing in Latin America,” she said. “So this notion that this was a worldwide movement for freedom, for liberation, for justice was very close to our hearts.”
Today, as the world faces a global pandemic, increasing natural disasters, and decreasing access to resources, Vicuña’s message of multinational solidarity resonates in new ways, particularly with younger generations. “I think young people are really looking for an insight, for a perspective, a sensibility that has been suppressed,” she said. “Works like mine resonate with that kind of rising, with that kind of force.”
Some of Vicuña’s most conceptually forceful pieces are her “Quipus” (1966–present), many of which were featured in her retrospectives this year. They are suspended lengths of thread, yarn, twine, or unspun wool that range from small wall hangings to swaying masses that fill the rafters of an entire barn. She described them as “a system of ‘writing’ with knots and coloured threads.” Quipus were a form of indigenous memory-keeping and documentation which were abolished after Spanish colonization; Vicuña’s versions represent a bridge to pre-Columbian indigenous culture and promote poetic resistance to colonial narratives.
For the Mexico City exhibition, Vicuña installed a piece that she produced in 2006, called Quipu Menstrual. She initially conceived of the long lines of red yarn as a protest performance, asking the new Chilean president not to sell Chilean glaciers to mining corporations. With threads of varying hues, Vicuña created symbols of water, femininity, and blood, which she has described as “the energy of the cosmos, pure potential.”
Vicuña’s work has been linked to feminism, environmentalism, and their offspring—ecofeminism. The artist noted that right now, people are waking up to the “femaleness of this planet,” and are building feminist movements unlike any the world has ever seen. Yet she cautioned against holding tight to a rigidly Western perspective, and instead advised that we approach her work through the lens of indigenous knowledge.
“The indigenous perspective is a sensing of what is about to happen,” she said. “I have developed a discipline in my work that is paying attention to these anticipatory qualities.” She added that gaining such foresight is a process of observation and learning, being open to perception.
“If we follow the Western pattern of thinking that we know something, we are doomed,” Vicuña said. So far, she’s been right.
Claire Mullen
Thumbnail Image: Portrait of Cecilia Vicuña by Daniela Aravena. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Cecilia Vicuña, installation view of Quipu Menstrual (detail), 2006, in “About to Happen” at The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 2019-20. Photo by Claire Mullen. Courtesy of Claire Mullen.