Cecilia Vicuña: Weaving the Common Thread of Language, Memory, Resistance and the Female Body in Her Spatial Poetry  

Installation view, 13th Gwangju Biennale, 2021. Photo by Sang Tae Kim. Image courtesy of the artist, Gwangju Biennale and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view, 13th Gwangju Biennale, 2021. Photo by Sang Tae Kim. Image courtesy of the artist, Gwangju Biennale and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view of “Quipu Girok (Knot Record)” at Lehmann Maupin, Seoul, 2021 Photo by OnArt Studio. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view of “Quipu Girok (Knot Record)” at Lehmann Maupin, Seoul, 2021 Photo by OnArt Studio. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view, 13th Shanghai Biennale, “PHASE 03: AN EXHIBITION”, 2021. Photo by Chen Hao. Image courtesy of the artist, Power Station of Art and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view, 13th Shanghai Biennale, “PHASE 03: AN EXHIBITION”, 2021. Photo by Coca Dai. Image courtesy of the artist, Power Station of Art and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view of “Seehearing the Enlightened Failure” at Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (CA2M), Madrid, Spain, 2021. Photo by Roberto Ruiz. Image courtesy of the artist, Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo and Lehmann Maupin.
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Asia Society Hong Kong

For nearly five decades, Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña has been creating a diverse oeuvre encompassing issues surrounding political activism, environmental advocacy, human rights, and cultural homogenisation, yet has remained largely unknown to the global art world. This year however, her powerful works have finally made their way to Asia, with showcases in three cities—Seoul, Gwangju and Shanghai—ahead of a major solo show in New York’s Guggenheim in 2022.

TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, London and Seoul.

 

Born in 1948 in Santiago, Chile, to a family of artists and writers, Cecilia Vicuña has been creating art for as long as she can remember. “[I was not] able to speak yet,” she tells us in an email interview. “But [I knew] how to paint and move colours around, at age three or four.”

The poet, artist, filmmaker and activist has been in exile since the early 1970s, following the violent military coup against President Salvador Allende. Now in her 70s, she is based primarily in New York, creating art from her studio in the vibrant Tribeca area. “In New York there is the sense that art matters,” she says. “In Chile only artists think that way. After the dictatorship, Chilean society has not rediscovered the value and meaning art and culture had before the military coup of 1973.” Despite spending most of her adulthood away from her home country, Vicuña has always carried a piece of it with her, as evident in her art which is heavily informed by indigenous history and culture of Chile.

 

Installation view, 13th Gwangju Biennale, 2021. Photo by Sang Tae Kim. Image courtesy of the artist, Gwangju Biennale and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view, 13th Gwangju Biennale, 2021. Photo by Sang Tae Kim. Image courtesy of the artist, Gwangju Biennale and Lehmann Maupin.

 

“My work dwells in the not yet, the future potential of the unformed, where sound, weaving, and language interact to create new meanings.” Such is the one-sentence introduction Vicuña gives to the world of her multi-disciplinary practice. This prescience and deep introspection have guided Vicuña through her 50-year practice, often beginning as a thought or image, which then morphs into poetry, a film, a song, a sculpture, or a collective performance. Her practice is characterised by a sense of ephemerality and urgency for the modern world. Pressing concerns around ecological destruction, human rights, feminism, and cultural homogenisation, are often reflected at the centre of her work.

When Vicuña was a young artist in the 1960s living in Chile, she began creating a series of small sculptures, which she calls “precarios”, composed of debris and found objects. These works would be placed deliberately along the edge of the ocean, so that they would inevitably be erased by the elements. She coined the term “Arte Precario” (Precarious Art) for her art, which she explains is “a new independent category, a non-colonised name for them.” Around the same time, Vicuña became interested in ancient quipus, a method of record-keeping and visual communication through knotting coloured strings that was used by the Incas and other ancient Andean cultures. Vicuña recalls her first encounter with this ancient form of communication. “I saw a quipu in a book, probably in the early ‘60s at my aunt Rosa Vicuña’s home. She was a sculptor in love with pre-Columbian art.” In the early 1970s Vicuña began to make her own quipus from unspun wool, which would evolve into site-specific installations that combine the tactile ritual of weaving and spinning with assemblage, poetry, and performance.

Despite the fact that she had been making art for half a century, while being outspoken about world issues through her poetry, authoring more than 25 volumes, her work remained largely unknown to the international art world. “Everything that I had been doing for 50 years, it’s been mostly invisible, then all of a sudden, boom! It comes out like an eruption,” said Vicuña in an interview with Artsy last year. Only in recent years did Vicuña’s works start to gain their deserved recognition, making their way into the collections of renowned institutions including Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York, Tate in London, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago, among others.

This year marks a monumental year for the artist as her art is finally gracing the grounds of Asia. “For me [coming to Asia] is like coming home, to an imaginary home,” Vicuña tells us. “I have been passionate about ancient and contemporary Asian culture since I can remember.”

 

Installation view of “Quipu Girok (Knot Record)” at Lehmann Maupin, Seoul, 2021 Photo by OnArt Studio. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view of “Quipu Girok (Knot Record)” at Lehmann Maupin, Seoul, 2021 Photo by OnArt Studio. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.

 

Earlier in the year, Vicuña’s first solo presentation in Asia was staged at Lehmann Maupin Seoul. The name of the show “Quipu Girok”, is a curious combination of the Quechan word quipu, which translates to knot; and the Korean word girok, which means record. It featured recent works by the artist, and a colossal centerpiece—a large scale quipu installation made of coloumns of painted gauze reminiscent of ancient indigenous painting on weavings, silk polyester that are used to make the traditional Korean costume hanbok, and cotton dangling vertically from uneven sticks of bamboo. A hybrid installation of her ongoing “precarios” sculptures were also on display, incorporating new elements of lines, gestures, and a video of one the artist’s public performances along the Hudson River. The exhibition coincided with the artist’s participation in the 13th Gwangju Biennale, which featured a selection of paintings Vicuña recreated from those she produced in the 1970s that pay homage to the women who served in the Vietnam War.

 

Installation view, 13th Shanghai Biennale, “PHASE 03: AN EXHIBITION”, 2021. Photo by Chen Hao. Image courtesy of the artist, Power Station of Art and Lehmann Maupin.
Installation view, 13th Shanghai Biennale, “PHASE 03: AN EXHIBITION”, 2021. Photo by Coca Dai. Image courtesy of the artist, Power Station of Art and Lehmann Maupin.

 

Vicuña’s work often associates the quipu with the gendered female body, as seen in works such as the Quipu Menstrual series, which was recently shown at the 13th Shanghai Biennale. Quipu Menstrual was originally conceived as a prayer for the glaciers destroyed by mining, and parallels such a potent consequence with the power of menstruation and the vivacity of the female body as a metaphoric resistance to greed, violence and humankind’s intervention in nature. For the occasion, Vicuna created a version specific to the site. Quipu Menstrual (Shanghai) (2021) features ropes of unspun wool in varying shades of scarlet, dangling from the a circular rod in the ceiling, accompanied by a video documentation of the work’s first iteration, which was unveiled at the foot of the glacier of Cerro el Plomo in the Chilean Andes Mountains in 2006. Vicuña also recreated two lost works from the 1970s for the Biennale, Amaranta (1972/2021) and Almagria (1971/2021), which are called “menstrual paintings”, offering an alternative depiction of menstruation, presenting it in a powerful, almost celestial light in defiance to the perpetual misogyny and the idea of weakness often tied to female figures in a patriarchal society.

 

Installation view of “Seehearing the Enlightened Failure” at Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (CA2M), Madrid, Spain, 2021. Photo by Roberto Ruiz. Image courtesy of the artist, Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo and Lehmann Maupin.

 

After a string of exciting showcases in Asia and Europe this year, Vicuña will be busy gearing up for a solo exhibition in the rotunda at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim, slated to open in the summer of 2022.

Vicuña’s foresight, strength and awareness of the state of the world gives her art the tremendous power to unite the past with the present, humanity with nature, and art with poetry. In a rather matter-of-fact statement, she reminds us, “[The world] changes by the minute and remains the same. In the ’60s we already knew the world was rushing towards self-destruction. The awareness was there. It all comes from this awareness.” Perhaps this is why, despite their later recognition, Vicuña’s art is able to resonate with audiences from cultures far beyond her own.

When asked what is the best way to approach her art, she answers, “With questions and new feelings. For art no language is best, I call it sentipensar—thought feeling-feeling thought.”

 

 

 

Current Exhibitions:

Cecilia Vicuña: Seehearing the Enlightened Failure
Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (CA2M), Madrid
20 February – 11 July 2021

Body Topographies (group show)
Lehmann Maupin London
16 June – 4 September 2021

 

Upcoming:

Cecilia Vicuña
Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York
Summer 2022

 

 

 
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