Cecilia Vicuña’s Precarious Universe

Guisela Latorre

Jul 09, 2019

Lo Precario/The Precarious, Wexner Center install

What does it mean to create precarious art? The word “precarious” often makes us think of objects, people, or social relations that are fragile, vulnerable, or weak. These are the elements in our world that are always on the brink of destruction, extinction, or disappearance. Artists have been exploring the nature of precarity for several centuries now. Performance, conceptual, and environmental art—to cite a few examples—have concerned themselves with objects, actions, and relationships that are essentially precarious. These artists reject the idea that art objects should be durable and long-lasting so that they could be contained and possessed by museums, galleries, or wealthy collectors. By contrast, precarious art can only be archived and “collected” through the practice of memory, a precarious act in and of itself. Personal memory is often unreliable and highly subjective, but is also able to capture the richness of the human experience.

Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña has purposely embraced precarity throughout her career. Her exile from Chile after the military coup of 1973 that overthrew President Salvador Allende made her acutely aware of how precarious human existence can be. Her life as a young artist was violently uprooted when she was forced to leave the country. The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet would detain, torture, murder, and “disappear” thousands of Chileans during its 16-year tenure. Vicuña learned that these lives were not only precarious, but also threatening to the military state. Moreover, it was clear to her that democracy and social justice were in a constant state of instability and vulnerability. It is then remarkable that Vicuña should decide to embrace precarity in her work. Her precarious art compels us to consider the inherent frailty of our world which is often ruled by violence, inequality, and oppression. But those things that exist in a state of precarity are quite important to the artist. While they are threatened by destruction, they continue to exist and persist, even if it is for a brief moment. As a person who was exiled and shunned by the Chilean state, Vicuña recognizes the precarious in her. She regards herself and others in this world as living a precarious experience defined by both frailty and resilience.

I first became aware of Vicuña’s work and her interest in precarity when she visited my college campus during my graduate student days. She read verses from her poetry almost in whispers and spoke about discussing the creation of a “museum of ideas” with Allende. At the time I found her creative approach to be too understated and minimalist to be politically effective. Nevertheless, I would encounter her work again some 20 years later at the Museo de la Memoria (Museum of Memory) in Santiago, Chile. This museum documents Chile’s history of repression and dictatorship by placing emphasis on the voices and experiences of those who endured the full force of the regime’s violence. After walking through the galleries and learning more about my birthplace’s painful history of tyranny, I encountered Vicuña’s Quipu de Lamentos (“Lamenting Quipu”), an installation consisting of various strands of delicate gauze-like fabric, wool, and other fibers hanging from the ceiling. As I began to walk through the strands, I heard voices around me crying, moaning, and lamenting. The artist had fitted many of these strands with small speakers. I suddenly found myself immersed in a tapestry of pain and suffering. The experience was disquieting, but also powerful. The delicate and precarious materials that made up Quipu de Lamentos contained within them voices otherwise silenced by structures of power. I then understood that Vicuña’s understated, minimal, and precarious approach was indeed very politically effective.

It is with this understanding that I approach Vicuña’s mixed media works she calls precarios which are the result of multiple influences that converge on her art. The rise of conceptual and installation art in the 60s and 70s encouraged Vicuña to think of art as the expression of ideas rather than the mere practice of creating physical objects. Process, gesture, and action became equally if not more important to her than the finished object. Vicuña then seamlessly wove conceptualism into indigenous aesthetics. Her deep respect and admirations for the Mapuche, the Quechua, and other Andean native communities is reflected in the artist’s close attention to the sacredness of site, land, and location, as seen in her precarios. The installation on display at the Wexner Center for the Arts was built from found objects and discarded materials that Vicuña recovered from the Columbus area. Art critic Lucy Lippard argues that these works’ “message of vulnerability and persistence reflect the history of Native peoples, especially Native women, and make their own oblique social statements.” Of particular interest to me, however, is how Vicuña also honors Chile’s tradition of radical public art in her precarious practice. She created one of her first precarios on the beaches of Concón, a small Chilean seaside town.  She built this delicate structure only to see it washed away by the ocean, an action she would repeat for many years to come in this same location. This precario together with other public interventions she has done over the years have great affinities with the muralist brigades that would emerge in Chile in the 1960s. As I discuss in my book Democracy on the Wall, these artists covered city walls with political messages that would soon disappear at the hands of the state and other public authorities. This act of erasure gave the brigades the opportunity to actualize their political message and paint city walls all over again. Like these Chilean muralists, Vicuña also regards precarity as an opportunity for renewal in the face of power and control. “Continuity in obliteration,” to borrow her words, is a recurring motif in Vicuña’s work

Upon visiting Vicuña’s exhibition Lo Precario/The Precarious, currently on view at the Wexner, I was struck by the careful use of open space in the gallery, a contrast to the more enclosed effect I experienced when seeing the Quipu de Lamentos at the Museo de la Memoria. The artist together with curators Michael Goodson and Lucy Zimmerman arranged these pieces widely spaced across a large gallery wall so that we appreciate their intricacy and vulnerability, but also the power and monumentality of the installation. I had never seen her precario work in person before and doing so allowed me to detect a creative process that begins with symbolic acts of compassion. She places much importance and value on the pieces of human litter and waste she finds on the streets and in public spaces, objects that she lovingly arranges in the gallery space. “An object is not an object, it is a witness to a relationship,” Vicuña reveals in her poem Arte Precario. She calls these objects basuritas (“little trashes”), a term that connotes affection toward things society has discarded. Challenging our culture of disposability and insatiable consumption, Vicuña compels her audience to re-value the items she has used to create her precarios. By placing them in a gallery space, the artist encourages us to see them differently, to reflect on their beauty and their history of existence in this world. Her attention to composition, juxtaposition, and balance promote close visual inspections and discernments on the part of her viewers. Flimsy strings, torn pieces of fabrics, weathered metal scraps, brittle twigs, and other ephemera are not to be dismissed or cast away yet their precarity remains self-evident. Vicuña makes no effort to restore, mend, or “repair” her basuritas for posterity. Her precarios simply capture a fleeting moment in the lifespan of her treasured finds.

For Vicuña, making precarious art means remaining mindful and compassionate in one’s creative practice. Reflecting deeply and thoughtfully on precarity, however, also means denouncing the social structures of oppression and inequality that endanger and threaten not only human beings, but also our democracies and ecosystems. Precarity, as seen in Vicuña’s art, is both a natural and unnatural phenomenon that can be generative and devastating at the same time. It is these nuanced, complex, and unexpected ideas in her work that make Vicuña one of the greatest living Chilean artists.

Quipus are Andean recording and numbering devices that date back to the Pre-Columbian era. They often consist of knotted strings made of cotton and other fibers. Vicuña has adopted many of the formal, conceptual and spiritual elements of quipus in her work. She sees the quipu as “a poem in space, a way to remember, involving the body and the cosmos at once.” 

Guisela Latorre specializes in modern and contemporary US Latinx and Latin American art with a special emphasis on Chicana/Latina feminism. In addition to Democracy on the Wall, she is the author of Walls of Empowerment: Chicana/o Indigenist Murals from California (2008), the coauthor of ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals Under Siege (2017), and coeditor of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (2012–present). Learn more about Latorre at the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies website.