VeniceGiardini And Arsenale
59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia, The Milk Of Dreams
April 23 – November 11, 2022
BogotáMuseo De Arte Miguel Urrutia
Seehearing Enlightened Failure
February 17 – August 11, 2022
Cecilia Vicuña: Spin Spin Triangulene
May 27 – September 5, 2022
“Hilo de agua, hilo de vida, hilo de voz”: These threads—and others nearby—weave together Cecilia Vicuña’s five-decades long artistic, poetic, and politically engaged practices. At the artist’s current exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum slender threads and wire drape thirty feet from the ceiling. Loose assemblages of translucent fabrics and small objects float in near-suspension, moving slightly with the flows of air and people’s movements in the room. This installation, Quipu del exterminio / Extermination Quipu (2022) reflects on environmental and cultural violence, survivals, and vibrancies.
The decades-long arts practice of Cecilia Vicuña has received increasing recognition and appreciation recently, including the award of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2022 Venice Biennale. In addition to the Guggenheim exhibition in New York, Vicuña currently has a major retrospective on view at the Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia, Bogotá, and the artist is in preparation for forthcoming exhibitions at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, and MOCA, Tucson.
When I met with Vicuña in her studio on a recent weekday morning, we sat at a large work table, as light filtered in from the windows. Several tables were set out with materials for works-in-progress. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Suzanne Herrera (Rail): Thank you so much for meeting and speaking with us today, it’s an honor. There are many different places to begin with your work. Starting in the mid-sixties, you have written about, performed, and named your art practice lo precario (the precarious). I wonder if we might just open with lo precario as a starting point. How did this word, this sensibility, arrive to you? What is lo precario for you?
Cecilia Vicuña: Well, I was a teenager in Santiago—I believe it was in the year 1965—and I read in the Encyclopedia Britannica that life on the planet was endangered. Because of pollution and over-exploitation, life could probably come to an end very soon for us. That produced a profound impact on my spirit, on my soul, on my life, on my art, everything, knowing that we were facing this reality.
Plus, I had had dreams when I was much younger, when I was probably eight: there was a big earthquake in Chile and after the earthquake, I dreamt that the sea was on fire. (And as you know, now the sea is on fire regularly, because of oil extraction from the sea.) I somehow understood that life itself was precarious. But the word didn’t come to me right away.
When I had finished high school and been admitted to architecture school at the Universidad de Chile, I was on the beach one day. At the time, we spent long months at the beach. In the sixties, people lived in a different time zone than we are now. Everything was much slower, and there was much more time for everything you did. I would go every day to the beach, and one day the wind came around my waist, and in that moment, I realized that I was being sensed by the elements: by the wind, by the sun, by the light, by the sand itself. I was in awe of what that meant. Because that meant that my awareness was part of a web of awareness around me. And I dissolved in that moment. Everything that I was, was gone, and something new emerged. A sense of absolute reverence and love for this. That’s when I—I didn’t fall to the floor like in the stories that you hear but I suppose I kneeled or squatted—I always squat. [Laughs] I squatted down and reached for a stick, and I planted it on the beach. And I realized that this was the beginning of a new kind of art, where I could build—because I was dreaming of architecture—a little city of basuritas, of debris, so close to the waves that when high tide would come, it would erase it. I continued to do that, and I suppose a moment came, in those early days, that I realized: this is arte precario. When I said that, I knew that that expression did not exist before. I knew that was the definition I could live by.
Rail: I’ve been moved by the way you’ve written about arte precario as a practice that is a form of communication, but one that doesn’t need permanence or that doesn’t necessarily even imagine permanence. And the way that arte precario is also a form of listening. You write about it as a form of remembering.
Vicuña: Yes, it’s important that you said that. Because this listening, and the placement of the sticks there, for me it’s a kind of script. As if it were writing. And of course, writing is all about listening, at least from my perspective. Because you are hearing language in a different manner when you are about to write. Something tells you, guides you, and it is usually another dimension.
But a script for whom? In this case, the script is a message or a language for the sea, the light, the sun, the wind, the beach, the sand. And it also includes us, as passersby. The structure I created is passing, and we are passing too. It’s a sort of double precarity. This double precarity is what composes this extraordinary awareness that we have been endowed with.
Rail: Sí. I remember the image of “passersby” in one of your poems, but I hadn’t also thought of that sense of passing by continually. A continual passing by.
Vicuña: It’s a very beautiful thing when you are considering the passersby. At the time very few people would come to that particular beach because it was un botadero, as we say in Spanish, a place that was just for debris. The waves had chosen that beach for depositing lots of debris, and that’s why I loved it. But passersby would pass, let’s say, higher up, next to the highway. But I consider their presence, even though they were not there. And I considered myself one of them too. [Laughter]
Rail: It seems like there is something about arte precario that—in connection with the passersby—is an invitation to listening, but that also can mean countenancing forms of not-listening, or forms of perception in which that listening hasn’t arrived yet. You’ve also written about perception, a shifting of perception or entering into a different kind of perception. In your recent book of poems and visual works, About to Happen (2017), you write that “dissolving works change perception imperceptibly.”
Vicuña: That shift is what makes art art. Or poetry poetry. You know, because we are all hearing, we are all supposedly listening. But what is it that makes a particular phrase stand out? Is it the phrase itself or is it the way we listen to it? It’s always this interaction, this relationship going on. And that’s one of the reasons why I say that really, the art is the relationship. It's the way you relate to it, and it relates to you. It's a back and forth. It's always a reciprocation at work.
Rail: There’s a kind of affection, or even tenderness that you have with the basuritas, even in their name, little trashes. In your first book, Saborami (1973), there’s a moment where you are speaking to a friend about your affection for cambuchitos (little bags), and your compañero responds, “tú misma eres un cambuchito”! I think of A Journal of Objects for the Chilean Resistance (1973–74) which is one of your early pieces that you had started in London, where you offer the idea that there is a potential for resistance in these very small discarded objects: “the diary of a life in litter.” And that is in quite a different context than the original precarios at the beach at Con cón. Could you talk a little bit about that work and what it meant to make it at the time?
Vicuña: When I reached London, I thought I was going to be in London for just nine months, because that was the length of my grant. I had a scholarship to study art. While I was there I was befriended by the Chilean embassy. A moment came when this film that had been filmed in Chile—State of Siege (1972) by the Greek filmmaker, Costa-Gavras—was to be premiered in London. I was invited by the Chilean embassy to be part of the event. At the time I suppose I was the only art person who had a scholarship. So, I went there. Many of my friends had worked as extras in this film, because it didn’t happen very often that a big filmmaker like Costa-Gavras would come to Chile. And what was this film about? It was about the military coup that had occurred in Montevideo, Uruguay. He couldn’t film in Uruguay because it was already under the dictatorship, so he used Santiago and Valparaíso, Chile. I came to this premiere as you go to a party, and I see these images of Chile under a dictatorship, and I began crying desperately. Everyone was in the mood of celebration, right there in the cinema, except for Cecilia, crying, crying. Because I knew in that moment that this was exactly what was going to happen to Salvador Allende and my friends. As you know, shortly after, it happened.
I naturally am always picking up debris anywhere, after that experience in the beach of Con cón, and in London I continued to do that. [Laughter] I know that it is a normal practice for a lot of people in the world, that you find a nice little rock or a nice little something, and you pick it up and keep it. But my dedication was very intense. [Laughter] So, when this happened, I knew that I needed to create these objects as a prayer, to prevent the military coup. I began even more intensely to pick up debris, and that’s where the journey began. Every day, religiously, I did an object. And of course, the military coup took place anyway, and I continued for several months, until a moment came when I had four hundred of these little precarios.
At the time I, along with some friends, had already founded the Artists for Democracy project, and four of us were invited to do an exhibition at a fantastic place in Covent Garden called Art’s Meeting Place. That is the place where I did my first exhibition, A Journal of Objects for the Chilean Resistance (July, 1974).
Rail: In your book QUIPoem (1997), there was a reproduction of one of the precarios from the Journal of Objects. It was a small assemblage of a feather and several small sticks, and there is a line accompanying it that reads, “maximum fragility against maximum power.” That phrase occurs again in the handwritten text on the wall of Quipu del exterminio / Extermination Quipu (2022) that you have installed at your current Guggenheim exhibition. This phrase, this idea, “maximum fragility against maximum power” encompasses so much, and has stayed with me.
Vicuña: Yes, it is really amazing that the precarios themselves felt that way, you see. Where did this idea come from? If you try to trace that idea you will find it everywhere, you will find it in ancient traditional cultures, and you will also find it in dreams. For example, I once had a dream where I needed to change the course of a river. Can you imagine such an enterprise? And what did I do, I grabbed a little spoon, and I started to change the course of the river with a little teaspoon. In the dream, I knew that this would be completely effective, and the river would hear me. [Laughs] You see? dreams are their own thing, you know. The dream believes that.
Rail: In one of your early books of artwork and poetry, Precario/Precarious (1983), there are text and images that describe a work you performed at a river, in Antivero, Chile: you loosely tossed threads across the river, and you write about the significance of making a connection with the river through these light, unattached pieces of thread. I wonder if you might talk a bit about this work?
Vicuña: Threads are one of the most precarious things that exist. Threads are despised, because they’re perceived as something that doesn’t matter, and as unimportant just because it’s a “woman’s” thing, you know? My mother wasn’t a weaver in the Indigenous sense of working with looms—even though my mother is an Indigenous woman—because her culture had been colonized for three centuries before I was born. So, she only knitted with two needles: she was always knitting, among many other things. At the time when I grew up, practically every woman would be knitting their own sweaters; so did I. At age four, I was already knitting, so threads formed part of the precariousness. The minute I encountered the quipu, I immediately felt the connectivity that the threads were embracing me. The quipu embraced me: that’s how I felt.
I did my first spatial weaving in my own bedroom in 1972. I had also knitted a vest for myself, with holes this big [gestures with hands], so that there’s just huge holes. One day, I looked at my body inside this vest of holes. I wanted to see a weaving that would be as large as the room, where I could become like a little dot or knot inside that web. That’s how it all began.
So then, to get back to Antivero: I came to New York to give a poetry performance in 1980, and I met someone, and this guy said “let’s get married.” So it was an accident that I ended up staying in New York. Once I realized “my god, I’m staying in New York!”—the last place that I would have imagined as a place for me—I began weaving in the streets. I began by weaving the weeds; I began by weaving the waters. And soon enough, on my first trip to South America in 1981, back to Colombia and then Chile, including Antivero, I began weaving the landscape.
Retrospectively, I think now, that I was probably weaving back my body to the land. Here in New York, what exactly was I weaving and weaving? Weaving the trees in the Bronx forest, and weaving these weeds in any crack in the pavement. I suppose I was also weaving myself to this land, to the memory of the land. To me, New York is still a Native place, just as the Andes is. It doesn’t matter how much you cover it with cement, the memory of the people that were and are here is forever here, and I feel it. So that’s how the quipu began to grow, and to become much more than just an object: to become a way to connect us to ancient and future memory, to land, and to others. Eventually thirty years after that, or twenty years after I first started doing weavings in space, I realized that in Inca times, this method existed. But there was no way that I would have known that, because I believe the first publications about the mention of the quipu came out after I made those works.
Quipu have become well-known only very recently in Chile. Before, the knowledge of quipu was kept in the archaeology field, and nobody else would be hearing about this. There were no museums with displays, it was not taught in school, it was never mentioned, at least not in Chile. Chile has a collection of tremendous quipus because many were created during the Inca era, and because Chile was part of the Inca universe—not all of Chile, but at least half, from the mountains to the Maule river, which formed a border along Mapuche territory in pre-Columbian times.
Rail: How do you think about working at different scales? Many of the precarios are quite small, made with basuritas to a scale not much larger than your hands. In other spatial weavings, such as the installation Cloud- Net (1998), threads and woven elements span across much larger open areas. In the current Guggenheim exhibition’s Quipu del exterminio / Extermination Quipu (2022) you are also working with larger installation spaces.
Vicuña: I think with a sense of scale, my imagination functions in the Amerindian scale. The Amerindian scale is a scale that you find throughout the Americas and you also find throughout the entire world, until the takeover of what is now called Western culture. It is this concept of the body in relation to the cosmos. For example, in that first gesture in Con cón beach where the concept of the arte precario was born, I was not in the scale of a person. I was in the scale of the sun, of the ocean, you see? The little girl could immediately sense that scale.
Why is that? I have written about this: I could be sensing the landscape in a way that the landscape was not talked about, but had been felt for thousands of years. I suppose the work of the poet and of the artist is to sense that which is unnamed, but is present somehow. For me, I didn’t have to make a single effort for that scale to be already part of me. Think of the Nazca lines, think of the straight roads in the Amazon, this geometric construction of huge roads in the Southwest of the US; think of similar concepts of relation: of neolithic structures in Europe, towards the alignment of the sun, the alignment of the stars—this is who we really are as humans. The only culture that has cut us off from that cosmic dimension is the West, and that has served to destroy everything. I have always been ridiculed because I speak of the cosmic dimension or the cosmic scale, because it is perceived as New Age rubbish, but it’s not! Thank god I have met amazing astronomers and archaeoastronomers, and they affirm that that’s the way human history has always proceeded. [Laughter]
Rail: There is that movement to a more vast scale.
Vicuña: Yes, I think one of the difficulties of the environmental movement now is that the environmentalists are thinking again in that scale. And Rachel Carson, she thought in that cosmic, planetary scale; all of the enlightened scientists think naturally in that scale. And especially now with big data, a lot of people can do that—the computers and the algorithms are definitely doing that. But the mindset that rules politics is still in a nineteenth century, individualistic mindset. There’s a bridge that needs to take place, to liberate people to bridge that gap, so that everyone can perceive the urgency of what’s happening. Because it can only be perceived if you think in the planetary scale.
Rail: Yes, absolutely. I wanted to ask you about a different kind of shift. You’re an artist and a poet, you also write prose, you’ve made many films (including the feature-length film Kon Kon, in 2010), you’ve done many performances and participatory works, you’re also an editor, and of course you’re a storyteller—among many other things. These all involve moving among languages, and also between languages or sensibilities that I think of as verbal and nonverbal. I am curious, how do you experience moving in and out of verbal and nonverbal materials, or do you experience it that way at all?
Vicuña: Well, what I can say is that all those categories are set up by the colonizing cultures, and if you look at traditional cultures, these categories don’t quite apply. For example, there are cultures where a huge number of the people in a certain community are adept at singing and dancing and painting their bodies; it’s probably everybody that can shift into doing what in the West would be called “art.” Nobody calls it art, nobody thinks “ah, we are now doing some art.” It’s part of the collective creativity, and within that collective creativity there is very strong individual creativity. You see this especially in music. Music is a place where the individual and the group interact in most extraordinary ways in traditional Indigenous cultures. So I suppose even though I am a city person, and I am thoroughly “civilized,” I am not. [Laughs] You see? This funny experience of being many perceptions that are in complete contradiction is, I think, characteristic of us Latin Americans. Whether we are people who live in the countryside or whether we are city people, I don’t think that we are fully and completely beholden to the Western mode of thinking, and that is our saving grace. When I co-edited the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry in 2009, I began to see how the first generation of Indigenous people who encountered the languages coming in from Europe immediately began transforming them. Everything was immediately transformed by the Indigenous and Mestizo populations, and that is a source of immense creativity.
How do I navigate all these things? I just do. One moment you’re drinking wine, the next moment you’re drinking water. [Laughs] The material at hand tells you what it wants to be. I don’t have to think. It just comes, in a particular vibration, in a particular resonance: one that wants a brush, one that wants a pencil, one that wants a song, one that wants a camera. It’s part of the listening, you listen to that very delicate pattern: the structures in which each one of the mediums exist. And you are—all of us human beings are—connected to all of those patterns. You can become specialized in listening, if you care for listening. You can specialize in attending to patterns if that speaks to you. What kind of training is that? It’s not a training from school. It’s a training where your own perception, and that which you are perceiving, is training you. That’s why I love quantum physics: because in quantum, the observer alters what is being observed. That’s exactly how it works with sound if you are doing music, and that’s exactly how it works with painting, if you are doing a painting: there is always an interaction.
Rail: I’ve been thinking about your books of art and poetry, and I wonder if you might talk about your process of assembling them? The books bring together so many elements of your work—drawings, images, poems and texts, memories and transcripts of performances, and music—creating dialogues across the page. For me, your many published books—there are nearly thirty—have made your practice of arte precario accessible.
Vicuña: How do I assemble my books? Well, I could answer you by telling you how I assembled my first book, which was Saborami (1973). When I arrived in London in September of 1972 as an art student, I discovered that there was a category called the “artist’s book.” It's not that I had not seen them. I had seen them in Chile, but not under a so-called category called “artist’s books.” How did I find them in Chile, in the sixties?
There was a shelf close to the floor, where the bookstore just pushed everything that didn't fit on the shelves, and I would be magnetized to that particular area! I had always seen these disheveled little things that were like nothings, and I loved them. I loved them because they felt almost like toys. I was a schoolgirl, and I would skip school just to go look about in the bookstores. There was one particular bookstore in Santiago, Librería Universitaria, that had these artist books, and I would go there. But when I arrived in London, I see a category: artist book. (Ah, the label! That’s what Western culture does—label everything! And so, they think they have created and invented things just because they have invented the labels; that’s very typical. Well, it doesn't matter, you can forgive them for that.) [Laughing] So I see these books, and I began seeing that these artist books were really … limitless! People were doing whatever they wished, and calling it an “artist book.” I loved that! To me, they were all like little basuritas, just like my sculptures, but with some writing in them.
It so happened that—I don't know how—the minute I arrived in England, I met Felipe Ehrenberg who was the founder of Beau Geste Press, along with David Mayor. Beau Geste Press had become the principal Fluxus publishing operation. It was just a farm where they lived with two artists: Takako Saito and Martha Hellion. So, there was a foursome that did Beau Geste Press. They had heard through the grapevine of poetry circles that Cecilia had arrived in London, and Felipe immediately invited me to do a book with Beau Geste Press. It was like a dream—oh, how fantastic! I had never met with Felipe; he was Mexican, he had arrived—also in exile—from the persecutions in Mexico, and didn't live in London, he lived in Devon. When I was invited, I was already doing the journal of precarious objects so I said to Felipe, “Yes, that's wonderful, I will do a book of precarios where each one of my journal pieces will be a page of the book.” That was the book I had planned. In the meantime, the military coup occurred in Chile. The book was going to be printed and created more or less two weeks after the coup, and when I saw that, I realized I cannot do just a journal of basuritas because it will not say what has happened. So, in the course of two or three weeks, I recomposed that book and I created Saborami.
Saborami is the model of all the future books that I have created in my life because it contained everything: it contained the writing, it contained the precarious objects, the journal, and it also contained the story of the exhibitions I had done in Chile that I knew would be erased, destroyed. Because the military coup was not a regular military coup. It was a catastrophe, a cultural catastrophe that destroyed 150 years of democratic culture in Chile. Somehow, I knew instinctively that this will be a total, radical, and absolute erasure of everything. I actually painted one painting that is not at the Guggenheim now, but it is in my retrospective in Bogotá (Veroír el fracaso iluminado/Seehearing the Enlightened Failure, at the Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia). I began painting it on September 11th, 1973, and I finished it in the morning of September 12th, and what it shows is Chile converted into a desert. Now, of course, Chile is a desert. Water has been privatized, and half the population of Chile doesn't have enough water to drink. This coup not only destroyed our culture—our democratic, political culture—but also the environment. These are the things that, as I see it, people need to realize—that these two things are one, they are together: if you destroy a culture, you destroy the land, you destroy even the water—it gives me the creeps to say that. Where does the form of my books come from? From the tragedies, from the atrocities performed on us.
Rail: I wanted to close by asking about one of your practices that I haven’t seen widely written about, but which I find a source of potentially transformative—and hopeful—political and cultural work, namely your work as an editor bringing anthologies and series into publication.
Among other projects, you were a member of the Heresies collective, you have edited major anthologies including Ül, Four Mapuche poets, a trilingual anthology (1998); co-edited the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (2009), as well as serving as the editor of the Palabra Sur series of Latin American Literature in translation at Graywolf Press. Can you talk about your experience as an editor?
Vicuña: Thank you. You're the first person who ever asked me about this work, who has considered me as an editor. I began my first anthology in mimeograph form in Chile before 1972. It doesn't have a date, so I'm guessing from the material that it was done in 1970 or ’71. That was an anthology of the poets of the artist collective Tribu No. I do have one or two copies of this mimeo anthology. It was produced with the sense of wanting to gather us together. What we were collectively was, from the very beginning, a very strong sense during the time of Salvador Allende, this sense of “We.”
I am so delighted to see, for example, that Documenta fifteen is all about “the We.” The young people of the world, especially in what is called the Southern Hemisphere, we are very concerned with the We and had never given it up. And just yesterday, we had the triumph in Colombia of the We with the election victories of Francia Marquez and Gustavo Petro (on June 19, 2022). It is the love for the We that causes me to edit these anthologies, and so many of my anthologies have never circulated or been published. I have composed them, and they're just kept there; some only remain as a note for a project that I would like to do, and never gets a grant, never gets done, I have several of those. So, thank you for that question. That mimeo anthology of Tribu No never circulated: we only made 50 copies, but there was not an outlet for them. And then, of course, I had to leave for London.
The first anthology I did that had a substantial circulation was four books that I published for Graywolf Press in the mid eighties. I called it the “Palabra Sur” series: I managed to publish Vicente Huidobro, Rosario Castellanos, Martín Adán, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. They were fantastic little books because they gathered fantastic authors and fantastic translators; I had planned for that series to include several more books that were almost ready to be published, but they never made it. After a long hiatus, I was invited to do the Mapuche anthology Ül, which has remained in print and is a fantastic trilingual book. I believe it’s the only trilingual book of the three languages: English, Mapudugun, and Spanish. After that came the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (2009). All the others that I had planned in between remain unpublished! [Laughter]
Rail: Thank you for sharing about that, it’s something that’s been very meaningful to me. I've recently been researching the processes around the publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (first published in 1981, now on its fifth edition forty years later). Gloria Anzaldúa, one of the original co-editors of that anthology, has described being an editor as impactful political work—a way of changing cultural conversations and creating different forms of visibility and coalition. In an interview, Anzaldúa said: “making these anthologies is also activism. In the process of creating the composition, the work of art, the painting, the film, you’re creating the culture. […] Writers have something in common with people doing grassroots organizing and acting in community: It’s all about rewriting culture.”1
Vicuña: That’s exactly my motivation, why the “We” was important. Because, for example, the first anthology I did, we couldn't have been more marginal, Tribu No was just a bunch of friends, and all of them young like me. How were we going to—and who was going to—assemble all the works? No one—so we had to be our own agents. And that is the liberating force of young people, that you have to do it yourself.
- Gloria Anzaldúa to Andrea Lunsford in Interviews/Entrevistas, edited by AnaLouise Keating, New York: Routledge, 2000 [page 277]. Cited by Ana Louise Keating in “Charting Pathways, Making Thresholds,” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, eds. Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating, New York: Routledge, 2002, [page 9].