Reading lists, conversations, and other texts
Binding, Unraveling: ideas from the fourth Cecilia Vicuña Reading Group by Theodore Lau
On December 14, 2020, Brian Karl led a Cecilia Vicuña reading group, joined by Jamie Boyle, Mariwyn Curtin, Anthony Huberman, Daisy Nam, Elena Yu, Ekaterina Izmestieva, Jeanne Gerrity, Mia Daniels, Zach Ngin, Kate Ruddle, Theodore Lau, Ben Chaffee, and Katherine Earle.

A central question was posed to the group: What are the “red threads” that help make new rituals make sense?

In working with this central inquiry, the reading group alternated between a train of thought followed by a set of questions, a practice of study that unconsciously resembled an iterative sort of weaving or threading in its undulation between methodological forms. This summary opens onto these entries as an opening for your own inquiry. We encourage you to start where it makes most sense, and to understand where you end as not a final cessation, but an invitation to continue weaving, in your own way.

This question was brought into dialogue with the following readings:
Chapter 2 of Fray: Art and Textile Politics by Julia Bryan-Wilson
Frame, Flow and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality by Victor Turner
“Cecilia Vicuña, Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami” by Monica Uszerowicz

Bryan-Wilson’s chapter of Fray details the complex underpinnings of Vicuña’s early work in exile, relating to her experiences of the Chilean coup against Salvador Allende, and her turn toward Indigenous pre-colonial practices. It also expands upon her use of woven materials as a feminized, intimate method of production, a valuation of small, individual gestures and their gravitational orbit of relations.

In Turner’s anthropological text, he speaks to the ways in which ritual provides a fragile transfer between states, a narrow place of intrinsic delicacy that is sometimes known as the liminal. In realizing this transfer within wider societal frames, he invokes the idea of a public ritual, in which collective performance allows for the symbolic transfer from a stable state to a fleeting in-between, an action that exists in the realm of the subjunctive or “non actual” before its transition to another stable state. Such a description is worth digging deeper into in light of Vicuña’s performance practice.

As such, Userowicz’s review provides a short but stunning account of Vicuña’s performance-based activation of her formal work at the MCA North Miami, in which she emitted a humming, droning set of utterances from deep within herself, in the process wrapping 50 participants in a woolen quipu. The review also provides language describing Vicuña’s work as archaeological, and further resurrectional.

In thinking alongside the different facets of Vicuña’s practice brought to bear in previous reading group iterations, what brings together the precarios, quipus, poems, performances within Vicuña’s performance?

What relationship does ritual possess to the varying facets of Vicuña’s practice?

Are her works ritual objects? Do they operate in separate ways simultaneously?

The concept of the “red thread” was brought into play as a proposed means of synthesizing the complex set of tendencies present across Vicuña’s practice. It was analogized via the red spider thread of Ariadne used by Theseus to escape the minotaur’s labyrinth in Greek mythology, as well as the red thread, used to symbolize the concept of fate in Chinese cosmology. It was noted that red can also symbolize blood, and more specifically menstruation, an important reference in Cecilia’s feminist approach to art making.

What comes to mind when you think of red thread?

What type of presence does a thread leave in the world? What type of tension? Who makes threads? Why?

What does it mean to bring other cultural contexts into dialogue with the Indigenous world she mines? What does it mean to cross pollinate these allegories across space-time?

This was discussed in relation to blood as a somatic system that sustains the body while simultaneously existing pre-knowledge and therefore able to elude epistemological boundaries.

What is bloody in Vicuña’s work? What is embodied? Does that matter?

Is red a useful color to isolate this ritualistic tendency? Is thread a useful analogy? What is a thread that can’t be haptically perceived? When is thread temporary?

What does it mean to speak to Vicuña’s objects and practices with other objects and practices?

When thinking with practices such as Vicuña’s that hold the interpersonal so intimately, is there an appropriate distance to engage in ethical inquiry?

What does Vicuña want us to know? What does she want us to feel? What does she want us to be? Are any of these things knowable, or even things as such?

In a 2018 performance during her exhibition at the Bay Area Museum/ Pacific Film Archive, Vicuña engaged in a babbling, non-verbal sound making, an incantation between a prayer and a cry that implicated the audience in a close, swaying environment. In doing so, it was posited that she could be embodying the shaman, or crone, a femme figure key to activating ritual in Turner's thinking. A recorded excerpt of this work was played for the reading group - it was disclosed that there was some institutional discomfort due to the unpredictability of her performance.

What does sound without words mean to you? When was the last time you were physically close, swayed with another person? Will we ever recover the way that felt before the pandemic?
What does such an experience in a gallery setting mean?

How, why, and where do you make artwork? What does working in detritus in the natural world conjure to you? What can it be?

How does something become noticed as an emergent state of being? Is being noticed a mandate put onto the object? Or onto the observer?

What does this mean for encounters within a museum, or an institution? Is the museum too cordoned off from daily life? Is the gallery becoming too familiar?

What is missing from Vicuña’s work within the white cube of a gallery?

What is lost when Vicuña’s method is taken too closely as an institutional instead of a collective mandate?

Is the liminal truly possible in a gallery space? Was it ever possible?

Does this distinction between “inside” the space of art versus “outside” matter?

This fragile, temporary, partial condition of Vicuña’s oeuvre is held as something other than weakness, asking an earlier question in a different way:

What type of question does a thread create?