In The Box: ¿Qué es para usted la poesía? / What Is Poetry to You? (1980)

Lucy I. Zimmerman

Tue, Jul 02, 2019

Still from What is Poetry to You?

Poet, artist, filmmaker, and activist Cecilia Vicuña left Chile to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London in 1972, just a year before a US-backed coup d’état resulted in the death of the country’s then-president Salvador Allende. (Allende was a democratic socialist and friend of Vicuña’s grandfather). At age 24, she watched from exile as General Augusto Pinochet seized power and established a dictatorship (lasting 1973–90) characterized by the suppression and persecution of opponents and increased economic inequality. Though barred from returning to Chile for decades, Vicuña used her voice and art to address the human rights atrocities, erasure of indigenous people, cultural homogenization, and environmental exploitation happening back home. 

The seeds of her political art-making took root even before leaving Chile. In 1966, Vicuña began crafting small sculptures from bits of cast-off materials—what she calls los precarios (the precarious) or, alternatively, basuritas (little garbages). While in London in 1973–74, she started making these daily to form Diary of Objects of the Chilean Resistance—400 works that serve as spatial poems and function collectively as a metaphor for and record of her life in exile abroad. Vicuña has said these sculptures—crafted from objects society deemed worthless—serve three purposes: “Politically, they stand for socialism; magically, they help the liberation struggle; and aesthetically, they are as beautiful as they can be to comfort the soul and give strength.” But the materiality and scale of los precarios also challenge expectations about what form art can assume in confronting injustice and how poetry can be assembled—not from words but from rubbish. 

In 1975, Vicuña returned to Latin America and settled briefly in Colombia where she created her first documentary What is Poetry to You? in 1980. In this short film, we see the young artist (often, not always) interviewing the people of Bogotá—men and women, schoolchildren, sex workers, fellow artists, poets, street performers, a scientist. She does not ask them to objectively define poetry. Instead, she asks, subjectively, What is poetry to you? Vicuña smiles widely and listens intently to the responses that range in tone from the lyrical (“poetry is that wild animal that converts his song into a cry for freedom”) to the political (“poetry is the theft of a plaster typewriter, a disruption of peace”). These answers illustrate the manifold ways poetry circulates in the minds and lives of individuals and furthermore ask the viewer to consider for whom poetry exists, where it can be accessed, and who makes it. Taking us through the streets, tunnels, salsatheques, schoolyards, homes, and brothels of Bogotá, Vicuña reveals the vitality, potency, and potential that poetry and language hold in turbulent times.

A selection of Vicuña’s precarios from the 1990s through 2019, including works made with materials found in Columbus, is featured in our summer exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: Lo Precario/The Precarious on view in the galleries through August 11. 

—Lucy I. Zimmerman
Assistant Curator, Exhibitions


Cecilia Vicuña (b. 1948, Santiago, Chile) is a celebrated poet, activist, and artist whose practice steadfastly transgresses disciplines and media traditionally siloed in Western art history and the academy. Her work has been exhibited extensively in the United States, Latin America, and Europe and is currently the subject of a touring solo exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen (organized by the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans) and a retrospective exhibition at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. She has authored and edited more than two dozen volumes featuring poetry and art and is the recipient of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (2019), Anonymous Was a Woman Award, New York (1999) and the Andy Warhol Foundation Award (1997).


Cecilia Vicuña
¿Qué es para usted la poesía? / What Is Poetry to You?, 1980
23:20 mins., 16mm film transferred to video

Image: What is Poetry to You?/ ¿Qué es para Ud la Poesía?, courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul