Q&A: Cecilia Vicuña

Richard Fletcher & Maria Joranko

Jul 29, 2019

An image shot from above of Gallery B in the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. The image includes the white grid work near the ceiling of the center's galleries and an installation of precarios by artist Cecilia Vicuña.

Richard Fletcher and Maria Joranko share excerpts from a long and fascinating phone conversation with the artist behind Cecilia Vicuña: Lo Precario/The Precarious.

Joranko is an artist who works by day in the Wexner Center's Education Department. She is also a grassroots activist fighting for racial and LGBTQIA+ equity. You can find her creating immersive installations or gardening.

Fletcher is an associate professor in the Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy at The Ohio State University. He writes about contemporary art and education under the pen name Minus Plato. His book No Philosopher King: An Everyday Guide to Art and Life under Trump was published this year by AC Books and he is currently writing about the legacies of the 2017 exhibition documenta 14, at which Cecilia Vicuña was a participating artist.  

As we were having this conversation with Cecilia Vicuña across distances and with the aim of creating a continuing dialogue, we broke the ice by explaining how we came to her work, starting with her work at documenta 14 in Athens, which was informed by a visionary moment at Delphi. 

Richard Fletcher: So if we move from Athens to Columbus, as you said, there's no disconnect between your experience at Delphi and the presentation of your work in a museum. But when you come to a very different place….

Maria Joranko: Like Columbus! How do these connections bridge themselves and are there connections that you feel extend to here through there?

Cecilia Vicuña: When I finished high school, I entered architecture school. Architecture is my passion. The precarios were born with the imagination that I would be an architect. My first precarios were these little miniature buildings imagining a city as it may have been in the ancient past or might be in the future after the ecological disaster has taken place and we have reoriented ourselves toward loving the earth once more. The way I dealt with the space was that I entered into the museum and was shown this exhibition space, and I am struck by this building that has these odd columns and little paths that go nowhere. I really could see that the mind of this architect [Peter Eisenman] is a crazy, weird mind and I love it! And so I immediately could see I would be able to do something and in two seconds I already had a vision of what this exhibition would be because the space told me that, the architect told me that.

RF: That's amazing to hear.

MJ: Yeah. That you had that transformative experience with this space and hearing the beginning of your precarios as architecture, a city in the post-future and past. How do you view cycles and beginnings more generally? Can language bridge those domains that you're occupying within these different realms of knowledge and their multi-dimensional facets are occupying as well? A piece that stood out to us was Cerebro Rari, “weird brain”. How do you view performance action, languages, political struggles, and animal struggles as relating to our current predicament?

Image of a Precario sculpture made by artist Cecilia Vicuña from found objects including a small frame with a picture inside. Work is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: Lo Precario/The Precarious

Cerebro Rari (Precarios), Rari in New York, 2014. Mixed media and single-channel video, color, sound. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul


CV: In this particular work, in the video you have a mix of Indigenous, English, and Spanish words. I think, that in the horror that we face--the extinction of life itself, the planet, biosphere, and oxygen-- that these are the things that we are doing. Any language that we can use is short and incapable: it's all we have. The mixing of languages feels, for example, in times of how a migrant person feels. Even though I migrated 40 years ago, I still think of that space where language, doesn't really help you because you know that you will always be misunderstood, misheard, your conversation is not right, you don't have the right expression, so you say them wrong or whatever. This sort of speechlessness of the migrant is a very powerful creative force, because from that inability a new ability emerges from the impossibility.

Image of a Precario sculpture made by artist Cecilia Vicuña from found objects includA ladder-like precario by Cecilia Vicuña hangs amid the ceiling gridwork in a gallery at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. Work is on view in the exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: Lo Precario/The Precarious

Sage ladder (seven step), 1994. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.


RF: What you're saying about language, migration, Indigenous cultures and resilience, seems embodied in Sage Ladder. Can you tell us how it was formed?

CV: I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the mid-90s, invited to work in a jail that was transformed into an art space. The exhibition was called Ceq'e Fragments. I was friendly with Richard Tuttle and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge who lived nearby so they came to see my in-progress installation. It was really a beautiful exchange, and I can see the way Richard looked at those works. I was there for perhaps two weeks and I took walkabouts in the desert where I encountered peace. I knew from reading about it that sage had a role as a cleanser in terms of the use that Indigenous people have had for sage forever. Being there was like a miracle. There's no water, no humidity, and yet this plant is like a fragrant healer that is healing the desert and anybody who even thinks about it. The Sage Ladder I transformed into a seven-step ladder because that is the traditional axis mundi of the Mapuche women shamen, the Machi. So I translated the axis-- the ladder-- to Sage Ladder because we are at a time when there's no mothers for us, no axis mundi, nothing for us. In nothingness, we have to grind through the most fragile things which, like sage, at the same time are the most powerful.

RF: Thank you for sharing that story, Cecilia.

MJ: That was beautiful.

Image of a Precario sculpture made by artist Cecilia Vicuña from found objects. Work is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: Lo Precario/The Precarious

Pink Ohio, 2019, mixed media and Shaman herido II (Precario), unknown, mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.


RF: We wanted to bring together two different precarios to see what it would be like for you to think about them in relation to each other. Pink Ohio, created for this exhibition uses materials that are a part of what you call the plastic vortex that is engulfing our world and our oceans right now. The other is from the ‘wounded shaman’ series, Shaman herido II, made from swaddled driftwood.

CV: I think the first thought that comes to this is something that I have said a few times, is that life needs to die to regenerate itself. In the piece of the wounded shaman, you have something that is already dying, you have a piece of cloth that will die in: it will rot, it will biodegrade. The trouble with the plastic vortex is that it doesn't participate in that. The fact that plastic can be demolished in order to become micro-plastic but you cannot make it disappear. It doesn't become something else, degrade, or bio-degrade in the manner that everything else in this planet lives and dies. Therefore, it is an invasion from another planet from the dark side of our mind that doesn't want to see that death is necessary for life to be renewed.

RF: Wow, that's wonderful.

MJ: A small violent particle that's invading us, but the darkness of the intention of wanting it to preserve us.

CV: That's right. When plastic became available, it was celebrated because it could not be destroyed, you see? Everybody loved it for that reason. It's this illusion. This is the reason why arte precario and Los precarios exists is to point this illusion. That we can preserve something is pure illusion. There can be only life and death and that's the beauty. We are beautiful because we die you see. This valuing of death, significance of death, can never be separated from life.

MJ: That's like our folklore. Everything that was meant to die but is circumventing it in order to stay young and beautiful becomes something that's ugly, horrific, and evil. All life carries a piece of death inside of it, and that death seed will bloom. 

CV: And that is what is liberating, you see? This negative view of death is killing us. Because there is one thing, the death of the planet, biosphere, oxygen and the individual. We are creating a sort of global death and still want to think in individual terms. That doesn't work.

Image of a Precario sculpture made by artist Cecilia VicuñA poem written by Cecilia Vicuña, seen as wall text. Work is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the exhibition Cecilia Vicuña: Lo Precario/The Precarious

RF: That's true. Like the wall text you wrote at the Wex, says ‘Continuity in obliteration’. What you're describing is a much greater, more problematic death.

MJ: Personal obliteration is part of the communal growth and obliteration, too. Communal consciousness.

CV: You see the two things are one in truth because you only can feel the pain of obliteration through your own body, your own individuality. That is something precious, unique, and rare, you know? What should be expected from us is the ability to think of the whole of living things in the same manner, you see what I mean? This is the leap that we have to make. If we don't, we're going to really be obliterated and there will be no continuity. If obliteration and continuity are one thing, then that is an altogether different thing.

MJ: We survive.