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Through gestures of collecting and connecting, touch has defined the lifelong project of Chilean-born artist, poet, filmmaker, and activist Cecilia Vicuña. With the exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen, her deeply compassionate work gains an urgently needed visibility. Vicuña insists on the existence of a world that is interconnected and in which we, humans, are inherently embedded. Experiences of touch evoked by and constitutive of her work rupture the subject’s perceived individuality, isolation, and autonomy. This touch signifies a relationship—one that has already been established or is about to be established.
One’s first encounter with Vicuña’s work as installed at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), New Orleans, entailed a visual and haptic feat. Long strands of unspun wool in shades of cream, pink, and fuchsia filled a space that funneled visitors from the center’s lobby to the main gallery. Draped over bamboo sticks that hung just beneath the ceiling, the wool cascaded to the concrete floor in large coils. There is a sense of fleshiness to this material—it appears to have a certain heft; it gives in to the touch with a slight resistance and springiness. Viewers were not so much “invited” to immerse themselves in the work; rather, they simply slid into it. As if gargantuan entrails, the installation enveloped visitors in Vicuña’s world.
Cocurated by Andrea Andersson, the Helis Foundation Chief Curator of Visual Arts at the CAC, and Julia Bryan-Wilson, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, About to Happen defies the conventions of a traditional retrospective. Although the introductory wall text in New Orleans claimed that the exhibition featured Vicuña’s works since the 1960s, in the galleries any attempt to establish a chronology, or even to pinpoint specific objects to concrete moments during the tumultuous decades through which the artist lived, failed. Sculptural works dominated the cavernous, L-shaped central gallery space. Arranged to foster dialogue across distances and carefully created sightlines, and presented mostly without orienting texts, the works melded into an all-encompassing, site-specific installation.
When a viewer turned her back on the entrance toward the gallery, she might have begun to read a long phrase in Spanish in blood-red vinyl text that extended along the top edge of the entire opposite wall. To grasp it, she had to walk, following the text. The reading experience might have been even more physical for non-Spanish speakers, who were tasked with deciphering the English translation camouflaged at the wall’s bottom in glossy white vinyl against matte white paint. “The form wasn’t born from the idea,” the text asserted.1 The relationship between the installation and the poetic words materialized the connections between textile and text, craft and concept, reading as an embodied exercise that critics have long hailed in Vicuña’s work. Even more, it posited the reader as a living, breathing link between the material and its code. As enticing as this proposition was, however, many rich, specific references to Andean culture in Vicuña’s work might have been lost on viewers unless they chose to consult the exhibition guide, which listed some of the works’ titles and provided interpretive clues. For example, Vicuña’s striking wool garlands are knotted at one point or another, thus constituting a larger-than-human-scale reiteration of quipus—Incan record-keeping devices encoded by knotting the cords of colorful fibers. Her quipu had its counterpart in a giant roll of cerulean-blue unspun wool that unfurled toward the windows in the gallery’s northwest corner (Caracol Azul/Blue Snail, 2017). A meticulous assemblage of the detritus gathered on Louisiana’s beaches seemed to weave and zigzag through the long and narrow space between the wool objects (Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood, 2017). Suspended in the air by a nylon string, pieces of lanyard, clusters of netting and strings, sticks and twigs, and a basketball surrounded by the halo of a looped rope appeared to float in an invisible liquid. The installation was as lovely as it was haunting.
The other end of the gallery was dedicated to precarios (precarious things), or, as they are also known, basuritas (little rubbish, little garbage). Vicuña assembles these tiny, modest sculptures from found materials: sticks, twigs, thread, shells, seeds, pebbles, feathers, and a multitude of various quotidian objects. Nothing in these works is materially forced together. Rather, the artist tenderly puts one thing next to, over, in, or under another. Only a thread holds them together. Not only are precarios fragile constructions, as their diminutive monikers imply, in the exhibition they also balanced delicately on balsa pegs inserted into the wall. Arranged like a stellar constellation, they spanned the gallery’s northeast corner and wrapped around a selection of slightly larger sculptures dispersed in a rectangular field of fine white sand. Together with Vicuña’s aforementioned Spanish quotation and the wall text Illapantac (1998, also in blood-red vinyl), this simulacrum of a beach suggested other, discursive and physical sites beyond the gallery, networks of people and places with whom the artist has been intertwined. In particular, they alluded to the Con Cón beach in Chile’s Central Valley—the point of Vicuña’s perpetual returns as well as her artistic origins, where she had staked her first ephemeral precarios in 1966.
The sculptural part of the exhibition culminated with the selection of ten scrolls and artist books, from the 1980s to the present, placed on a long, narrow shelf—an echo of the text on the opposite wall. Finally, two isolated galleries in the back of the main space were dedicated to Vicuña’s media works. One featured a three-channel video installation, La Noche de las Especies (2009), the poetic evocation of an underwater landscape animated by Robert Kolodny based on the artist’s drawings; the other gallery showed a selection of six videos from the last five years. These films foreground the artist’s manual labor and reiterate the generative potential of her tactile and haptic engagement with the world. We see Vicuña pull tiny objects from a coffee can, lay them out on the table, and assemble a “new creature.” We see her roam autumnal woods, collecting berries, pods, seeds, and nuts. The sound from the videos seeped into the main gallery, which powerfully resonated with a gurgling chant and high-pitched hum emanating from the films Skeleton Quipu (2014) and Semiya/Seed Song (2015), respectively.
For an exhibition promoted as Vicuña’s “most complete presentation to date,” however, there were many notable gaps. There were few traces of Vicuña as a performer or political activist whose foundational role in the London-based movement Artists for Democracy in the 1970s was celebrated in her native country with an exhibition at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago de Chile in 2014. More importantly, perhaps, Vicuña the painter was completely invisible. Absent were her humorous figurative canvases from the 1970s executed in a willfully “naïve” style meant to evoke popular and folkloric traditions of Latin America (perhaps due to their inclusion in Documenta 14). This decision seemed congruent with the curators’ aims to position Vicuña as a precursor of so-called dematerialization and, as asserted by the introductory wall text, to reposition dematerialization itself as “a formal consequence of radical climate change.” However, for an artist who has always insisted on the importance of her ancient ancestral roots and indebtedness to the political and cultural mobilization in Chile of the Allende era, this was a problematic choice that—together with an exhibition design that eschewed historical contextualization—risked erasing the particularities of Vicuña’s tactile vision.
There is much at stake in this long-overdue presentation of Vicuña’s work, which has stitched together continental divides and political ruptures for five decades. The exhibition comes at a moment when the canon of Latin American modern and contemporary art forged by US and Eurocentric discursive networks has consolidated according to the Constructivist and Neo-constructivist paradigm articulated along the Atlantic coast of Latin America, from Argentina to Venezuela, with an epicenter in Brazil.2 Such a canon asserts the genealogy of conceptualist, participatory, and relational artistic practices in Latin America in geometric abstraction and, implicitly, in a distinctly European lineage. While Vicuña’s work might well advocate for a sort of a planetary consciousness in the face of ongoing global ecological catastrophe, it nonetheless circulates in a geopolitical and cultural landscape defined by vast imbalances of power. Hence, the question is how to show, frame, and articulate the practices of such artists as Vicuña or, for example, the generation-older Peruvian artist and poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson (1924–2006). Like Vicuña, Eielson was an exile from his Andean homeland who sought a lifeline for his work—as well as the means of resistance to capitalist-colonialist domination—in quipus and other indigenous traditions. In the CAC exhibition, Vicuña’s works, deprived of textual anchors to link them to their cultural roots, verged on being defanged (not to mention stripped of their particular sense of humor) and recast as elegant exercises in the so-called poor aesthetic. Thankfully, the artist’s book accompanying the show opens with an autobiographic statement: “My art was born at the meeting point of two waters, the Aconcagua River and the Pacific Ocean” (6), thus serving as an important authorial corrective to the curators’ approach.
Still, Vicuña’s work insists on a connective power of touch. This power is perhaps most vividly embodied in a small book, We, the People (2016), that was tucked away at the end of the long shelf of books and scrolls. Traced with a red pencil in blocky cursive, the title phrase fills the scroll of a raw, unhemmed canvas. Like tubes that infuse a wounded body with blood, red threads weave in and out of the fabric, connecting the strokes, ears, and shoots of the letters. Their loose ends tangle up into a web around the declarative mini-banner that the scroll epitomizes. On view during the United States’ volatile summer of 2017, We, the People seemed to suggest that to sever ties might be suicidal, no matter the risks involved.
1. The full text reads in Spanish: “La luz de un sonido, o el sonido de una luz? Era su no ser nada aún, su ‘not yet’ lo que me atraía. Su ser ‘casi’ un borde, un ‘a punto de suceder.’ En esa cualidad me mantenía, buscando una forma antes de la forma. La forma no nacía de una idea. Era la idea desvaneciéndose. Al nacer, el ‘no’ la comprendía, dejándola ser en su deshacer. Un poema buscando su ser, el quasar sino el sueño de sonar.”
2. As manifested by three scholarly volumes: Elena Shtromberg, Art Systems: Brazil and the 1970s (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016); Irene V. Small, Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); and Mónica Amor, Theories of the Nonobject: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, 1944–1969 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016)—and multiple retrospective exhibitions by Brazilian artists, most recently, Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (October 1, 2016–January 2, 2017); Art Institute of Chicago (February 18–May 7, 2017); and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (July 14–October 1, 2017).
PhD candidate, Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin