On Cecilia Vicuña

Excerpts from essays by:
Lucy Lippard
Juliet Lynd
Guisela Latorre
Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy
Miguel A. López
Julia Bryan-Wilson
Daniel Borzutzky
“Respectfully sharing a spiritual approach with her indigenous sources, Vicuña sees herself as the receptacle of ancient knowledge, which she then translates into a very contemporary idiom. Her art is not easily categorized. She’s neither a poet who makes art, nor an artist who writes poetry. Her art is a naturally fused amalgamation of word and act in which she not only translates but becomes an archaeologist of language – excavating, dissecting, recreating meaning and communicating it to the inhabitants of today.”

- Lucy Lippard, “Floating Between Past and Future: The Indigenisation of Environmental Politics” (2017)

Still from "We Are All Indigenous," 2014
Still from "We Are All Indigenous," 2014

“...her precarious aesthetics avoids imposing any one interpretation on the past (or on contemporary indigenous cultures as alternative communities); instead, it utilizes the exoticism of indigenous aesthetics to trigger the imagination and invite the possibility of forging a utopian alternative to the social hierarchies constructed throughout the Americas as a result of colonialism as well as of dictatorship and contemporary neoliberal globalization.

The precarious aesthetic is for Vicuña the vehicle for attaining an open-ended mode of representation that denies fixed meanings and privileges creative connections, positioning the ephemeral as a gesture of hope against hegemonic discourses of power.”

- Juliet Lynd, “Precarious Resistance: Weaving Opposition in the Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña” (2005)

"Cementerio," 1982
"Cementerio," 1982

“For Vicuña, making precarious art means remaining mindful and compassionate in one’s creative practice. Reflecting deeply and thoughtfully on precarity, however, also means denouncing the social structures of oppression and inequality that endanger and threaten not only human beings, but also our democracies and ecosystems. Precarity, as seen in Vicuña’s art, is both a natural and unnatural phenomenon that can be generative and devastating at the same time.”

- Guisela Latorre, “Cecilia Vicuña’s Precarious Universe” (2019)

"Homenaje a Vietnam [Homage to Vietnam]," 1977
"Homenaje a Vietnam [Homage to Vietnam]," 1977

“Her work would in many ways be both triggered and inspired by political resistance. Political causes would also be addressed in more micro-political ways. Feminist and sociological methods, as well as indigenous culture and natural materials, would imbue her practice. The result would see her develop a varied and multidisciplinary body of work, which at times relies on words, images, environments, and a combination of languages, mediums, and techniques. But even while having an active practice in the arts, it has only been the last couple of years that Vicuña’s work has garnered more attention. Contributing to this is, in part, the ongoing feminist revisionism of art history, as well as the wider comprehension of indigenous forms of knowledge, which her work tacitly conveys.”

- Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Foreword, Cecilia Vicuña: Seehearing the Enlightened Failure (2019)

Left: Trubu No., "Sonia Flor [Flower Sonia]," ca. 1969-70<br />
Right: Tribu No., "Nudo de tres [Knot of three]," ca. 1969-70<br />
Left: Trubu No., "Sonia Flor [Flower Sonia]," ca. 1969-70
Right: Tribu No., "Nudo de tres [Knot of three]," ca. 1969-70

“Her work ‘is responding to a sign, it is not imposing a mark. Being a ‘non-site’ piece, it is not about appearance, but about disappearance.’

Vicuña valued the ritual, medicinal, healing, or shamanic aspect of art whose function is not to colonize or possess but to foster modifications in structures at both microscopic (non-visible phenomena) and macroscopic (perceptible physical experiences) levels. Her cyclical understanding of the creative act is conveyed through the return of ideals that do not exist as ‘final objects’ but as rehearsals – like the precarios or quipus that she has been recreating since 1966. Her weavings and assemblages seem to activate a memory of ancient civilizations. The strands of hair, strings, and vegetable and mineral debris that she incorporates into her works evoke indigenous settlements, Andean wak’as (sanctuaries, idols, temples, and graves), and the remains of original native peoples that reveal aspects of indigenous ontologies and other formations of the sacred that challenge Western ideas about time – in Andean philosophy the past and the present are part of a single non-evolutionary and non-determinist temporal concept based on circuvolutions or loops called pacha.

Her use of found materials – what she calls basuritas [little rubbish, little garbage] – is a way to stress the possibility of unearthing the meanings and power of things that are marked as disposable by the frenzied logic of the consumer society and the profit motive.”

- Miguel A. López, “Cecilia Vicuña: A Retrospective For Eyes That Do Not See” (2019)

"Origen del tejido," 1990
"Origen del tejido," 1990

“Words are part of Vicuña’s weaving vortex, as in spinning a tale or a poem or a spell–Palabrarmas or ‘wordweapons.’ She continues to dissect words, uncovering their skeletons and renaming their components, opening them up ‘so that their internal metaphors were exposed, so people would see words not just as abstractions but as something very concrete.’...This is also her method in the sculptural precarios. Sometimes they are very simple, haikus from nature, as in Tremo, which is made of wood, bone, wood, bone, wood, bone. Sometimes the materials are put together only to transform into something else — a boat, a web, a tree of life — identifying with her materials and their histories of freedom, use, or misery.”

- Lucy Lippard, “Spinning the Common Thread” (1997)

"Eman si pasión/Parti si pasión" [Emancipation/Participation], 1974
"Eman si pasión/Parti si pasión" [Emancipation/Participation], 1974

“By leaving her materials somewhat unworked, such as wool fleece and unspun wool roving, Vicuña goes back to the initial stages of textile creaton, using what I term preconstruction to recall histories of shearing and gathering as well as to gesture toward these materials’ futurities and afterlives as they propose themselves as the incipient materials of production, ready to be spun and woven. Deliberately unfinished, or even, in the case of Quipu in the Gutter, drawing attention to procedures of unraveling and unweaving, they refuse to be fully transformed into polished commodities. They ignite thought about what is to come, asking what sorts of factories and what sorts of working conditions might be put to use in the service of their reanimation, suggesting the nascent, the about to happen, the almost, the gearing up. As she writes about her attraction to unspun wool, ‘It’s no thing / it’s pure potential.’ Such materials also imply a halting of a process, the arresting of some future instrumentalization, as when stones weigh down a length of white wool, making it inert and unusable for any functional purpose–harking back to work stoppages, strikes, and, as with the Yarur mill, reclamation.”

- Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Threads of Protest” in Fray: Art and Textile Politics (2017)

"Quipu in the Gutter," 1989
"Quipu in the Gutter," 1989

“Dictatorships violently clarify ambiguities. As an exile, as a feminist, as a person who lost friends and family members to the military dictatorship, as a person who lost her country because of the military dictatorship, as someone who has always acknowledged and vehemently supported the dissemination of indigenous art, as an observer of U.S. culture, as someone out of place in two countries — Chile and the U.S., where she has lived for over 30 years — and as a member of no nation, Vicuña has always constructed her work from a position of resistance: to fascist government, to social hierarchies, to corporate power structures, to sexist power structures, to good taste, to the fashions of even the experimental art world. She is a poet, a performer, a visual artist, an anthologist, and among other things, a radical archivist. In the process, though, she is a model of how one lives her life in the struggles of art and politics through presence, through resilience, through continuous innovation, through a relentless questioning of history and tradition, through an idealism that is not naive, an idealism that understands how bad the world is, an idealism which believes that we need art to report horrors, to explain the horrors, to critique the horrors; we need art about the horrors to make our own horrible lives a little bit more worth living.”

- Daniel Borzutzky, “No, No and No: The Art of Cecilia Vicuña” (2018)