In Cecilia Vicuña's own words
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An interview with Tatiana Flores, 2009

An interview with Elianna Kan, 2019

“PAIN THINGS & EXPLANATIONS: pain tings & ex”, May 1973

'Frente Cultural,' 1973
"Frente Cultural," 1973

An Interview with Tatiana Flores, Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Rutgers (2009) (excerpt)

TF: The exhibition of your work at Rutgers is structured as a retrospective, and it includes a compendium of your visual production from the 1960s to the present. People who are familiar with your poetry and performance may be surprised to find that you were once a painter. Could you please discuss this early work: how it came about, who are your subjects, and why did you stop painting?

CV: ...The idea in these paintings was to reflect the way in which the colonists forced the indiginous to work in the churches and monasteries creating imitations of European artists. But the indigenous managed to transform those images, creating different versions: Pachamama as a mountain with the head of a Virgin. For a period of ten years I painted in the colonial style to express the fact that five hundred years later we, as Latin Americans, were still under colonial domination. People still had to think in terms of the Western world-view no matter how foreign this was to us.

TF: In 1971 you held a solo exhibition at the Museo Nacional Bellas Artes in Santiago, the Salón de Otoño (Autumn Salon). It consisted of filling the galleries with bags of dead leaves, and you referred to it as a contribution to socialism in Chile. I am curious to understand your thought process and the context better. Would you please describe the significance of the dead leaves? How did you reconcile this work, referred to by the curator as “conceptual art,” a term that had previously been unfamiliar to you with your painting? And how did you envision socialism in Chile?

CV: Well, first of all, I don’t think the art of the otoño piece and the paintings can be reconciled. They are actually mortal enemies. They are at odds with each other because painting, as I said, is a colonial European art. I was fully conscious of this and was acting the slave. On the other hand, the autumn piece was coming from the complete freedom of my indigenous side. It is an art of dissolution as renewal, the core of my precarious work. Truly, I had no exposure to conceptual art; I didn’t know about it, but the curator, Nemesio Antunez, had recently been in New York where he saw conceptual art. Actually, I heard the term the first time when he mentioned it. I wasn’t aware of the latest trends; I didn’t have that kind of orientation. I looked at art historical books that traced art all the way back to the Paleolithic. I had a good idea of what art was and intuited that the next thing, what needed to be done was to continue the art that was interrupted by colonialism. This meant to focus again, as ancient people did, on the life cycle.

TF: And how was this a contribution to socialism?

CV: Socialism was interpreted as another European invention and the Socialist Movement in Chile was anti-indigenous, like most social movements in Latin-America have been. But I was a child of the 60s and Ernesto Cardenal’s writings were already there. Great anthologies of indigenous poetry had been published in Mexico, in Paraguay, in Argentina so I was exposed to indigenous thinking very early. I knew this was the real revolution: to pay attention to what our excluded side had to say about the connection of human beings to the cosmos, to the earth, to the life force itself.

TF: mentioned that socialism was Eurocentric and that there was not too much consciousness of the indigenous during that time.

CV: Very little. Nevertheless, Allende is historically the only government in Chile that gave rights to the indigenous people. Of course these were revoked with Pinochet. Allende believed that the indigenous people needed to have their rights, but there wasn’t an awareness in Chilean society. Even today, you have very few artists in Chile who are really sympathetic with the struggle happening today. The indigenous people of Chile are in big trouble because of globalization. Lands are being taken for mining, for forest destruction, for all kinds of polluting industries that disregard completely any kind of human right, or civil right, or cultural right.

TF: The 1960s and 70s were remarkable in that there still existed the optimistic, or possibly utopian, notion that art could contribute to social change...would you advocate for a more activist posture for younger artists?

CV: ...I inherited an idealistic view, both from my European and my indiginous side, that art was a way of interacting with the life force. Because art is a way of getting deeper into the question of how perception works; how observation affects what is observed. Now, through quantum physics, you can see that the ancient view of the indigenous, and some European traditions, were grounded in an understanding now proven as completely real. The practice of art affects the body, nature, and everything else. What the present moment calls for is awareness of the effects of our actions.


CV: ...we are exhausting the earth at this moment. We are working very hard to self-destruct. So the only way out is to remember who we really are. Humanness arose from empathy. We can put ourselves in the shoes of the other. This is true humanity, and we have forgotten that, and when you relate to nature you have to be in interaction with nature, which teaches you that. Because the cycle of life and death includes everybody, starting with the air you breathe, starting with your shit, with your food. So I think that we, as human beings, are moving towards a memory of the future that involves a reconnection with the past.

TF: Lastly, I am curious to know more about your relation to feminism.

CV: I remember the moment when I heard the word “feminism” for the first time. Sometime in the early 60s I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. At that time, women were burning their bras and there was a huge movement happening in the northern hemisphere while Chile was impervious to it…I was a little disappointed when I arrived in London in 1972 and attended a conference and found feminism had been reduced to a political issue. I thought, “My God… I thought feminism was meant to change humanity and the way people live on this planet.” I have stuck with that feeling, therefore, I have always been a feminist...Right now feminism seems to be dormant. I see people thinking that it belongs in the past, but for me it belongs in the future. Its true form has not yet unfolded. When it does it will change the lives of everybody, not just women. Maybe it will have a new name, but if both men and women were to embrace the feminine within, admit to our vulnerability, then a new human culture would arise.

'AMAzone PALABRARmas,' 1977-8. Ink drawings. Spread from 'Cecilia Vicuña: Seehearing the Enlightened Failure.'
"AMAzone PALABRARmas," 1977-8. Ink drawings. Spread from "Cecilia Vicuña: Seehearing the Enlightened Failure."

An Interview with Elianna Kan for BOMB Magazine, 2019 (excerpt)

EK: What is the relationship between these different languages you inhabit?

CV: My work is really multilingual, and it includes languages I don’t even know myself – meaning languages I feel. I sense they exist because I hear them as a murmur, a sound, a concept. They’re unknown. They may have existed already, or maybe they will in the future.

I work mostly, of course, in Spanish, my native lung – or tongue. And because I’ve been in the U.S. for so long, there’s English too. Also, I always include the presence of other languages, like Mapudungun, Guarini, Ouecha, and Aymara. These come across as containers for a philosophy of how language works. They cannot be translated. So, you will find in my New and Selected Poems (Kelsey Street Press, 2018) many different languages – including Greek, Latin, and other ancient tongues as components of contemporary ones.

EK: What are these philosophies of language evoked or generated by the indigenous languages of South America?

CV: In the west, the idea that only the Greeks had philosophy and that inidigenous peoples didn’t (and still don’t) is very prevalent. The philosophy of ancient peoples is always included in the composition of their language – the phrases, syntax, and relationship between what you say and what you don’t. For example, in Quechua there’s such precision to an expression: somebody did something. You have to include in the word whether you heard it, witnessed it or heard it from someone else who witnessed it, and so forth. There are all these specific determinants. So the fact that such expressions have to be as precise as possible and at the same time suggestive of other dimensions is included in the creation of the language as a masterpiece – an artwork.

You can find this Mapudungun too – the language of the Mapuche people in the south of Chile. In 1998, I edited an anthology of Mapudungun poetry. Their philosophy of language includes an awareness of three types: the language people speak among one another, the one they speak with nature, and the one used to speak to another dimension, to those who are gone – ancestors, or even, future people.

EK: This seems to be more than a philosophy of language; it’s a metaphysics. These modes of communication grant that the human use of language involves nature and the physical world, communion with others and beyond.

CV: For instance, right now I’m a passionate student of quantum physics. Scientists are investigating the existence of a state where a molecule knows it’s being observed and changes in response. I might conceive of language the same way: it changes when you relate to it with an awareness of what you are seeing or engaging in, within that exchange, as if language were an alternate reality.

EK: When you mention Greek philosophy, I think of argumentative language deployed for the sake of making a case to convince another. But you use language in many other ways.

CV: The perception you just described is what is taught in the academy. Later Greek culture, after the classic era – meaning after male takeover, when patriarchy really sets in – becomes an instrument for domination, where clarity really means ruling. But any of the roots and etymologies of ancient Greek reflect an earlier culture of female creativity, as is the case the world over. The testimony to that is inside the words themselves. It’s a fact that very few languages speak of thought without involving weaving. I’ve been working to dig out all these weaving metaphors because they’ve become invisible. People say, “Oh, I’ve lost the thread of my thought.” Why is that, and who created that metaphor? Was it a weaver?

EK: And weavers tended to be women, presumably.

CV: Across the world! In the teaching of language, there’s this invisibilization of women, even though the words themselves speak otherwise.

EK: They betray a pre-patriarchal past.

CV: Yeah, and that’s the content of my work.


EK: This notion of ownership and creativity reminds me of the way we speak about translation in terms of fidelity and infidelity, as if it’s clear what would be one or the other. There’s anxiety about an essential original.

CV: This may be a function of private property, even of owning the body of a woman, of the right to rule over others. There’s definitely a hang-up with ownership. You hear artists and poets speak of “my work.” Even I say it. People ask about “your work,” in those terms. But I think my or your is relative because what’s really happening is always an interaction. You can own that interaction maybe, but it will always be changing. There’s a permanent impermanence to that relationship.

E: Speaking of relationships, temporal and emotional, how do you relate to memory? And how is it explored in your work?

CV: Memory is a great mystery. Physicists have discovered that a particle has a memory of its trajectory, of where it has been. What does that tell you about living cells, about land? These are notions indigenous people have expressed for so long – like that a rock has memory. Now medical science is recognizing that a fetus carries an epigenetic memory, transmitted from the mother. Her likes and dislikes, emotions and pain, all influence the epigenetic make-up of the child. Our ancestors’ trauma and memories are passed down to us, influencing how we see the world and tell stories. This notion is being expanded by science and also by the awakening of the human spirit. We have this reduction of the human imagination due to the invasion of technology, but at the same time, through our interactions, there’s this awakening. Which force will take over, which will humanity follow? Do we move toward total destruction and loss, or to the recovery of the spirit? Memory, I think, is the foundation of the future – not as preservation but as creativity.

'Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens),' 2017
"Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens)," 2017

Cecilia Vicuña, “PAIN THINGS & EXPLANATIONS: pain tings & ex,” May 1973

The real explanations of my paintings are lost in santiago.

I regard my act of painting as ritual. Any objects that this activity produces exist beyond art history, as if art history was already dead or it would have never existed. In my paintings I need every form to irritate, disgust, or disturb. They issue from a convulsed state in which images, helix forms moving as propellers, force their way out. What are those images I yearn to capture in a poem, a pain ting, a conversation or a concept thing? I want to use them as vehicles from inner into outer space & from outer into inner space, because they can lead me to a state of joy & revelation. These forms come from a specific place & they go to another equally specific place. When I paint the certainty of being in a centre is so deep that makes the back of my head ache. I am within a raw flesh heart and need my painting to provoke and be the raw flesh itself.

I am slowly getting closer to a form. To find it I need an opener and then a needle to join the loose ends into a structure that is not only a diagram, a spiders web in the cosmos or a mandala but a particular universe to be used by the thinker. It could be said that thought functions by creating diagrams in which each point is used only as a reference for movement within the unlimited. The thinker pretends that these references are fixed so that he can establish certain particularities as unalterable truths, arbitrarily chosen. Thus immovability within movement is created and along with it the Illusion of Order and Time.

In thinking of the forms for which I am looking I can’t help but find other forms for things outside my paintings, for any search must associate and connect with the search for a social ebay. If not it is a castrated search, an apolitical occupation good for nothing, or good to help maintain the present structures which have been established for the benefit of the few and the destruction of the rest.

But now these structures must be established taking into consideration facts other than profit or power. It will be possible to simplify these facts to these three categories:
- The way in & out of air in the lungs
- The way in & out of the food
- The way in of the semen and the way out in the shape of a child.
This is the elemental spider-web. The only structure loved by the planet, the only one that has a right to be sustained upon the others because it can be called wise or good for life.

The search for a structure in society is analogist to the search I undertake for form in my works. The social form is easier to find, it’s obviously socialism, self sufficient communities, but is harder to do it. The form I search for is harder to find, but easier to do.

The findings of paradise will coincide
with the finding of a language.

(paintings coming out of darkness go back to darkness. automatic images issur from “regiones eqivas’, evading regions, and right after exposure, like dreams, they return to their burrows in accessible places. all my work comes from stupidity and nausea. paintings coming from these feelings seem to change and establish an appearance and dialogue unique to the observer; just as the fairy tale mirrors.)