Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña asks urgent cosmic questions at the Guggenheim

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Cecilia Vicuña has spun art out of ephemera for decades, though only in her seventies has she been invited into the art world’s most elevated precincts. Born in Chile in 1948, she has spent more than 40 years in New York City, painting, performing, writing poems, sculpting artefacts from detritus. Yet suddenly, her quiet eco-spiritual sensibility has made her a late-twinkling star. In recent months, she has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale, been tapped to take over Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall next autumn with a special commission and been feted with a Guggenheim retrospective.

But that show, by itself, doesn’t find a satisfying answer to the necessary questions: why her, why now? It’s not as if she’s ta-dah-ing out of nowhere like a freshly sprung art school graduate. There have been plenty of opportunities, both inside museums and beyond, to appreciate her vision. Nor has she reached some new explosive stage: many of the political paintings on display here date from the 1970s and cover the same themes that obsessed other members of her generation: dictatorship, indigenous rights, love and war, a delicious delight in the sensual and natural worlds.

She connects the birth of her artistic sensibility to a January day in 1966, when, walking on a beach, she suddenly sensed that every big and little thing in the universe was tethered to every other. Picking up a piece of wood and thrusting it in the sand, she turned her epiphany into a calling.

Central to that mission was and is the quipu, her version of the knotted fibers associated with Andean peoples before the 17th century. (Vicuña exhibits a strong affinity with a range of indigenous cultures to which she doesn’t actually belong.) For them, it was presumably a system of record-keeping, though what information it encoded remains obscure.

Part of Vicuña’s quipu series, at the ‘Spin Spin Triangulene’ exhibition in the Guggenheim © David Heald © Sol

Vicuña’s latter-day quipus are scarlet-and-black cascades of unspun wool, hanging from the gallery ceiling like tendrils of dried blood or viscera, ornamented with bits of grass, wire, twin, twigs and plastic. The Guggenheim commissioned the new “Extermination Quipu”, which, using the most tenuous of materials, aspires to build up a barrier against catastrophic environmental and cultural loss.

Weaving, she points out, is etymologically related to text, technology, construction and tilling. Historically, it’s been a means of creation dominated by women, a way for them to provide shelter, clothing, ornamentation and narrative. “The people who have the knowledge of the meaning of weaving, the knowledge of the origin of life, are all being exterminated,” she says in a Guggenheim video interview. “So it’s not just extermination of the species; it’s also the species of thought.”

That kind of rhetoric might, if taken at face value, answer the questions I posed at the outset. Why her? Because she holds the key to humanity’s redemption. Why now? Because carbons are spewing and biodiversity is plummeting, so better get a move on. “It’s up to us to decide what kind of death we want to leave to the next generations. A death that brings new generations? Or a death where everything is gone?” she continues in the video. “And that decision has to be taken right now.”

'Autobiography' (1971)

‘Autobiography’ (1971) © Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego

I can’t quite detect the connection between “Extermination Quipu” and its universal ambitions or see it as the “umbilical cords to the cosmos”, as a wall text describes the work. Maybe that’s why the show, organized by Pablo León de la Barra and Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, emphasises her more salable, durable, identifiable paintings. Vicuña once said, “We are made of throwaways, and we will be thrown away,” but these bright and vivid pictures were built to last. In the first bays of the exhibition, you can practically hear the intertwined threads of Motown, blues, bebop and psychedelic rock that accompanied Vicuña’s youth.

“Amados” (Loved Ones), from 1969, is a group portrait of hippiedom’s usual prophets, including William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane. And at the center of this pantheon, there’s Cecilia herself, embracing her bearded boyfriend and soaking in the wisdom of centuries. In the 1971 “Autobiografía” she paints herself as a baby, a child of seven refusing to be indoctrinated by the dominant ideology, falling in love at 15, discovering spiritual affinities worship with nature and an almost passionate sense of self.

These early paintings have an exuberant charm, a quivering alertness to the angry world around her — or at least its celebrities — combined with a dogged conviction that everything will work out. They fuse an urban, slightly frenetic sensibility, with an outsider folksiness that Vicuña — the child of a left-leaning middle-class family in Santiago and a student at both the University of Chile art school and the Slade School of Fine Art in London — must have acquired through deliberate applications of naivete.

Cecilia Vicuña
Cecilia Vicuña with her ‘Extermination’ quipu at the Guggenheim © Alamy

Of all her various muses, Janis Joplin haunted Vicuña’s imagination the hardest, popping up as an alter ego. In “Janis Joe” (1971) the singer (by then already deceased) appears, replicating herself, at the center of an overtly religious canvas. A fantastical city floats in the distance, with cloisters and fountains out of a Renaissance panel. She’s surrounded by visions of peace, love, and liberation. But Vicuña once again manages to redirect some of the reverence to herself. There are more Cecilias than Janises: we see her flying naked above a garden, repopulating Eden with her Adam-like boyfriend, dancing at the edge of an abyss, experiencing her first menstrual period and listening to jazz.

But of course the party came to an end. Vicuña was living in London in 1973 when Chile’s rightwing general Augusto Pinochet launched a military coup that killed the socialist president Salvador Allende and ushered in a period of brutal oppression. She remained in exile, first in England, then in Colombia and eventually in New York.

You can see her mood pivot in a self-portrait titled “La Vicuña”, which shows her embracing the Andes-hopping, fine-wooled beast that is her namesake and wearing only a painted scarf. The part that flutters out behind her is the shiny past, full of lovemaking and singing and marching on a bright pink background. She’s still filling in the black-and-white half, a panoply of despots, soldiers and guns.

'The Vicuña' (1977)

‘The Vicuña’ (1977) © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The rest of the show — the part that covers her maturity — never quite gets back the energy, delight and guileless narcissism of those early years. What depth her art acquires in exchange seems meagre. She’s created plenty of ephemera: the talismans assembled from scavenged sticks and feathers that she calls “precarios” and the “basuritas” (little bits of rubbish), made out of plastic tabs and other manufactured waste. The Guggenheim mostly ignores these and lingers unfruitfully on the “palabrarmas”, banners of visual wordplay that doesn’t translate well to a non-Spanish-speaking audience.

In the end, puzzlement permeates the show, drifting among all the knotted raw-wool strands. While Vicuña poses urgent cosmic questions, the retrospective generates a narrower, pettier one: are all these ostensibly independent institutions flocking to the same name because they’ve discovered something profound or because the culture has developed a sudden need for an oracular sage?

To September 5, guggenheim.org

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