Introduction
by Jeanne Gerrity
I’m writing this text from San Francisco in August of 2020. Walking outside feels like standing downwind from a bonfire, the air hazy and hot, thick with the stench of burning forests. Lightning-sparked blazes around California rage uncontrollably, lives lost, buildings reduced to ashes, natural habitats destroyed. We swap our surgical masks to protect against the global pandemic for thick masks with filters to preserve our lungs.

“Burnt Quipu,” 2018, installation view, “About to Happen,” BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA. Photo by Johnna Arnold. Courtesy of BAMPFA and the artist.
“Burnt Quipu,” 2018, installation view, “About to Happen,” BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA. Photo by Johnna Arnold. Courtesy of BAMPFA and the artist.


I am reminded of Cecilia Vicuña’s Burnt Quipu (2018), wide ribbons of wool dyed the colors of fire, ash, and soot hanging from the ceiling in her exhibition About to Happen at the Berkeley Art Museum two years ago. The installation was a response to the northern California fires that year, but also points to a recurrent theme in Vicuña’s work: the disastrous effects of climate change resulting from reckless human activity. [1] Our best recourse is to coexist with the natural world, as Indigenous traditions have been telling us all along, and Vicuña draws from these ancient concepts to help spread this message.
We propose to slow down fast, a toda raja, before it is too late, before the nauseating speeding up of (our) destructiveness kills us all. We can perform it daily and the awareness that others are doing it too will come.

Tune into la raja, the tear, the rip, the opening, the slit between your legs—to take its pulse. Slide out of time and into the cosmic current. Wiggle loose from the grip of worldview based on monetary currency and colonial oppression and swim the laps of what we really are, Indigenous to the universe.

(Camila Marambio & Cecilia Vicuña, 2018)

For five decades Cecilia Vicuña (b. 1948, Santiago de Chile) has been making art in the forms of poetry, performance, installations, sculptures, paintings, and street actions that resist capitalism and disrupt colonialism from a feminist perspective. In this present moment her life’s work is more pressing than ever.
Joy could make people aware of the need to fight for joy. The urgency of the present is the urgency for revolution. (Cecilia Vicuña, 1973)

“Fidel y Allende” [Fidel and Allende], 1972, oil on canvas, 72 × 59 cm. Photo: England & Co Gallery, London. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.
“Fidel y Allende” [Fidel and Allende], 1972, oil on canvas, 72 × 59 cm. Photo: England & Co Gallery, London. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.


In 1973 Augusto Pinochet’s military coup overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende and upended the promise of a socialist future for Chile, which devolved instead into the horror of a totalitarian dictatorship. Vicuña was studying abroad in London at the time and was profoundly affected by this political catastrophe. She was working on Sabor a mi (1973), her first book of erotic, feminist poems, which she quickly reimagined as a manifesto against the coup, and her faux-naive paintings of the 1970s, which featured subject matter traversing Fidel Castro, queer love, and protest marches. Art and politics became indelibly intertwined and, ever since, she has worked to counter despair with energetic resolve.

Vicuña rejects the notion that poetry is elite and erudite, removing it from the academy and taking it to the streets. In the performance Vaso de Leche/Glass of Milk (1979), she spilled a glass of “milk” (white paint) on a sidewalk in Bogotá, Colombia, and wrote a poem on the pavement in order to draw attention to the crime committed by local merchants of adding paint to milk to increase profits, which resulted in the death of 1,920 children and no action taken by the government. With her 1980 documentary What is Poetry to You?, which poses the titular question to a cross section of residents of Bogotá from mechanics to sex workers to university students, she asserts that art and poetry do not belong only to the upper class. Vicuña refuses to patronize her intended audience of ordinary citizens; her work is resolutely complex and conceptual.

“Vaso de leche” [Glass of Milk], 1972/2002 performance, Bogotá, four archival digital prints. Photo: England & Co Gallery, London. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.
“Vaso de leche” [Glass of Milk], 1972/2002 performance, Bogotá, four archival digital prints. Photo: England & Co Gallery, London. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.


Palabrarmas is a neologism that translates to “word weapons” or “word arms.” Vicuña’s riddles are clever word plays turned into literal protest signs meant to provoke global action. The word Verdad (truth) unravels to become dar ver (to give sight), and pala (shovel) emerges from palabra (word) to reveal a physical implement or potential weapon within text. Created in the late 1960s and 1970s, Vicuña’s Palabrarmas boldly posit that language can fight violence during a time of rampant corruption and gruesome crime. She had originally called them divinations as a way to denote their spiritual connection, and these invented phrases use language in concert with visual art as both an intellectual tool and a mystical force. The symbolic power of language is evident today in recent Black Lives Matters protests—the slogan itself painted large on vacant downtown streets and across boarded up buildings to show solidarity with the movement, and walls tagged with poetic lines and quotations from people like Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.

“Pal abra,” 1976, collage on red paper, 29 x 24 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
“Pal abra,” 1976, collage on red paper, 29 x 24 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Words want to speak; to listen to them is the first task. (Cecilia Vicuña, 1984)

Vicuña’s own poetry readings are memorable events that blend ritual and intellect. Channeling a shaman, she chants in Spanish, English, and dialects indigenous to Latin America, such as Quechua and Mapuche, alternating languages in order to destroy the hegemony of English. She encircles rapt audience members with red yarn, wending her way to the front of the room. Vicuña consistently disregards boundaries between mediums, refusing to fit neatly within predetermined categories of a commercial western art world. Readings morph into performances. Poetry becomes protest signs. Sculptures are absorbed by the sea.
The sun spins the thread of life around the world the earth is a loom and the sun weaves the night and day (Cecilia Vicuña, 1997)

When we meet she tells me that the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism, has had a profound effect on her: “Abiding in the ancient Way/ To master what has now come to be/ And fathom its ancient source: This is called thread of the Way.” I can see how this emphasis on the harmony of the productive forces of the cosmos resonates with Vicuña’s own deference to earlier cultures, and the concept of thread as a connective force is a tool and a metaphor that runs throughout her work. Vicuña’s threads are woven from wool and other organic fibers that have a long aesthetic and utilitarian history.

Quipu Mapocho,” 2016, performance view, Llolleo, Chile. Courtesy of the artist.
Quipu Mapocho,” 2016, performance view, Llolleo, Chile. Courtesy of the artist.


Her immersive installations of enveloping skeins of soft wool pay homage to quipus, an intricate system of knotted cords used by pre-Columbian cultures for accounting and record keeping. Devices that existed before language, quipus employed textile for its symbolic power and lightness. Quipus traveled as encoded messages carried by runners (chaskis) across the entire Inka universe from Ecuador to Chile. The Indigenous quipus were presumably intended to transmit memory, and yet their original purpose is not completely known. Embracing the uncertainties surrounding the quipus, Vicuña’s installations evoke these eponymous Andean knowledge systems destroyed by colonial regimes, engaging with their themes of dissolution, erasure, and misinterpretation. She is unafraid of the feminist association with textile art, and her quipus are often dyed blood red to assert a matriarchal primacy linked to menstruation. This embrace of the color red continues Vicuña’s celebration of the female body that began with her defiantly feminist painting Angel of Menstruation (1973).

“Ángel de la menstruación” [Menstruation Angel], 1973, oil on canvas, 57.1 x 48.2 cm. Photo: England & Co Gallery, London. Collection Catherine Petitgas. Courtesy of the artist.
“Ángel de la menstruación” [Menstruation Angel], 1973, oil on canvas, 57.1 x 48.2 cm. Photo: England & Co Gallery, London. Collection Catherine Petitgas. Courtesy of the artist.


“Presence gives things their value, but absence makes them work,” reads the Tao Te Ching. Vicuña’s precarios, small, found object sculptures composed of natural elements and plastic debris, express an acceptance of the ephemeral nature of things. They resist preservation, intended to degrade over time. Vicuña did not consider her first precario, created on the beach in Chile in 1966, to be complete until it was swept out with the tide. Since then, she has constructed hundreds of these fragile sculptures, often near bodies of water and frequently outdoors. They conjoin quotidian objects in surprising and revelatory juxtapositions that she calls “metaphors in space.”

“Precario,” 2018, installation view, “About to Happen”, BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA. Photo by Johnna Arnold. Courtesy of BAMPFA and the artist.
“Precario,” 2018, installation view, “About to Happen”, BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA. Photo by Johnna Arnold. Courtesy of BAMPFA and the artist.


Crafted from organic materials such as twigs, feathers, and leaves, and man-made detritus like cloth scraps, string, and pieces of electronics, the precarios commune with nature without submitting it to violence. They reflect environmental degradation, but they also engage with the idea of disappearance, and in particular the disappearance of Indigenous people. Vicuña sometimes refers to the precarios as “basuritas,” or “little trash,” a literal reference to the cast-off materials that form these exquisite sculptures, but also to her own feeling of being treated as trash in the mainstream western art world as a Latin American artist and a woman. The precarios seem to acknowledge that a significant portion of the world’s population, in particular BIPOC women, exists in a state of precarity in the era of patriarchal, global capitalism.

Four Directions, 1983, installation view, Block Island. Courtesy of the artist.
Four Directions, 1983, installation view, Block Island. Courtesy of the artist.

“The Sleeping Gypsy (A Lion Guards Her Dream Journal)”

The Gypsy has been writing for many years
a secret text no one will ever
read, but which has begun
to materialize in real life.

While she continues dreaming
her dreams create the world.

The lion, however,
cannot sleep.
If he ceases to watch her,
she could awaken
and we vanish
instantly.

(Cecilia Vicuña, 1966–71)

If Vicuña is the protagonist in this poem, then her premonition has come to fruition: the secret text has begun to materialize in real life. In the fall of 2019, Chile experienced a national uprising to demand change. Enraged and mobilized by the economic inequality rampant in the country, Chileans took to the street in protest. During a studio visit, she tells me that young women in Santiago recently remade her Palabrarmas posters and used red thread as part of their actions during the resistance movement.

Vicuña’s work is, and has always been, prescient and urgent. She reaches back in time to find ancestral truths buried by colonial histories. Even the solution to the wildfires raging across California may be a simple one rooted in Indigenous practices remembered by only a few. [2] In contrast to the hubris of the art world and the greed of neoliberalism, Vicuña taps into deep connections between humankind and nature to express the precarity of our existence.

As the world goes up in flames around us, quite literally, living in a state of precarity has become the norm rather than the exception. In California, the unemployment rate rose to 18.2% in July, up from 3.9% in January. Along with the sudden loss of jobs comes a huge increase in homelessness and food insecurity. Public schools in the state haven’t been open for six months. Around the country the police are murdering Black people, and a fascist president is dividing the country. Faced with these horrors we find ourselves asking: What role does art play in revolution? Can art make a difference? How can we use art as a tool to better understand the world and ourselves? Is art ever enough? We approach these questions through the lens of Cecilia Vicuña, whose work grapples with themes related to the turmoil (and glimmers of hope) of our present moment.

While she continues dreaming, her dreams create the world.


Notes:
[1] Recently the intimate relationship between the spread of infectious diseases and climate change has also become terrifyingly clear. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/coronavirus-and-climate-change/
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/us/native-american-controlled-burns-california-wildfires.html