The Precarious Art of Cecilia Vicuña

After the spectacle of high-end hoarding that was this spring’s art fair and auction season, it’s refreshing to find a career survey at the Guggenheim Museum from an artist who has always considered much of her work to be disposable — she refers to a series of sculptures as “basuritas” (little trash cans) – and has used it to promote the ideal of a socially and environmentally sustainable world.

The artist is Cecilia Vicuña, who was born in Chile in 1948. And the study, wind chime-sounding titled “Cecilia Vicuña: Spin Spin Triangulene,” is her first in New York, where she’s lived, pretty much under the mainstream art market radar, for some four decades. This has changed in recent years. International prizes, awards and major shows have suddenly flooded her. But why so late?

Over the years she has been a tough sell. Like all female performers, she’s probably institutionally seen as a bad box office. As a transcultural figure – born in Latin America but a long-time resident of the United States; More indigenous by self-election than by birth – she’s hard to profile. Then there’s the fact that she has a substantial, even primary, reputation as a published poet. A large percentage of her creative output was in the ephemeral form of performed and printed words, virtually unmarketable and uncollectible, investment wise, in an art world context.

Finally, her fiery career-long politics, explained and lived — anti-capitalist, eco-activist, pro-underdog — is about as far from a Frieze ethos as you can get.

All of this plays into her Guggenheim show, which has a cluttered, fragmented, improvised feel, just right for an artist who has deliberately avoided permanence and polish, and who once said of much of the most well-known art she’s created: “We are made of disposable items, and we will be thrown away.”

The surprising thing about the show – hosted by Pablo León de la Barra, the general curator of the Museum of Latin America, and Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, an associate curator of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – is the dominant presence it gives to painting, a medium not usually associated with this artist. Examples, most modest in size and executed in a spicy faux-naive style inspired by religious folk art, popular political images and psychedelia of the 1960s, along the two lower slopes of the museum rotunda and symbolic account of Vicuña’s life.

In a 1971 painting called “Autobiografía (Autobiography)” she depicts herself at various stages of her childhood, as the independent-minded daughter of a middle-class, politically liberal family, which had a history of nurturing female artists. At eleven, we see her discovering an interest in dancing and performing. As a teenager, she falls in love three times, with a boy, with nature and with the art of writing, all passions that will sustain her.

A painting entitled “Amados (Loved Ones)” is a group portrait of figures who had shaped her intellectual and spiritual development until then, including historical poets (William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud), saviors and saints (Jesus, the Buddha, St. Teresa of Avila, Lao Tzu), and at least one painter, Vincent van Gogh. Individual photos she took at this time of the 1960s include effigies of Karl Marx and Janis Joplin.

The most ambitious of all is a six-panel screen that is packed with figures and offers a panoramic view of current political events, from international anti-war and gay rights demonstrations to the efforts of Salvador Allende, Chile’s elected socialist president, to establish a pro-democracy government.

Vicuña made these paintings as a graduate art student in London. It was while there that Allende was overthrown in a right-wing military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power and ushered in a long, violent reign of anti-leftist oppression in Chile. (According to his doctor, Allende shot herself instead of surrendering.) Vicuña stayed in London until 1975 and continued her self-exile closer to home by moving to Bogotá, Colombia. In 1980 she moved permanently to New York, which she had visited years earlier.

From this point it seemed that her art changed, calmed, became tamer. At least that’s the impression given by the spotlight of brash photographs from the early 1970s in this study, followed by less specific subjects, and then by what appears to be a very different kind of art: language-based, performative, abstract.

In fact, Vicuña had been producing abstract forms of activist work since the 1960s, largely in response to her growing love of the natural world and her recognition of its fragility in the face of industrial pollution. Her family owned a vacation home in a place called Concón on Chile’s Pacific coast. The beach there was within sight of a large oil refinery built in 1954 atop a thousands-year-old native burial ground.

Vicuña remembers that oil turned her feet black when she waded into the sea there as a child. She also recalls standing on the beach one day in January 1966, still in her teens, and spontaneously collecting bits of tidal debris — sticks, shells, gull feathers — and them, singly or tied together, upright in the sand in what must have been been an altar-like configuration, which she associated with an ancient native presence.

Although her family history is almost entirely Spanish, she identified early on with indigenous cultures and was acutely aware of the damage European colonialism has done to them and their country, both past and ongoing. Much of her art reflects this association. She called the fragile beach sculptures “precarios” (precarious things) and has made countless numbers over the years, including more than 400 in 1971 as a personal gesture of protest against the anti-indigenous Pinochet regime.

She also created a second, similar kind of ritual object, this one from industrial waste material such as plastic, and also gave it a name: ‘basuritas’. Both types of objects are, by design and use, ephemeral, intended to be swept away by tides and time, although at the Guggenheim you can find examples in Vicuña’s mesmerizing 2010 video ‘Kon Kon’, which is featured in the show.

Both precarios and basuritas are invented forms, but another one Vicuña has used repeatedly is taken directly from a pre-Columbian object called the quipuA type of openwork weave made from knotted cords or thread, the traditional Andean quipus found in burials may have been used as calculating instruments or memory recorders. Feared for their unknown significance, they were routinely destroyed by Spanish settlers and banned by the Roman Catholic Church.

Vicuña has repeatedly used variations on the quipu form, creating a monumental version for the occasion. It is called “Extermination Quipu” and it is installed on the first slope. It is composed of three ragged-looking cascades of raw wool, blood red, funeral black and dirty white. What makes the piece interesting, even mystery, are the things knotted into the wool: dried twigs, pieces of thread, strands of hair, what could be bits of bone, which turn the whole into a sort of hanging reliquary, a memento mori that is also an object of power of the kind that made the Spaniards so nervous.

The artist originally envisioned a quipu that would descend from the crowning skylight on the sixth floor of the Guggenheim down into the rotunda. The museum said no, but the idea made sense, as the research on Ramp 6 (Ramps 3, 4 and 5 are occupied by the Kandinsky show) concludes with a sampling of Vicuña’s language-based performance and protest art.

Much of this work, like the precarios, has its origins in 1966, in a series of what the artist called ‘palabrarmas’, language drawings made by sticking together several words or parsing one word into several parts, to create complex and eye-catching visual designs. In the past, palabrarmas — the term combines Spanish words for “word” and “weapons” — took on an active political life on posters and banners about indigenous rights, women’s rights and environmental issues.

A sample card of word-weapon banners envelops this porous yet impassioned overview, a show that physically jumps up and down the museum, hopping around in an artist’s history (late work predates early); that evades the issue of ethnic essentialism and sanely rejects the distinction between poetry and art. If it throws you a little at times, with questions, not sure what to think, then that seems to be the point, judging by the artist’s metaphor-soaked exhibition title, ‘Spin Spin Triangulene’.

A triangulene is an unstable molecule in constant spiral motion. In Latin America, multinational oil and mineral mines are drilling relentlessly into the earth. (Vicuña suggests in a recent painting that the Guggenheim was built on money once obtained from such a mine.) Certain indigenous monuments—the Celestial Observatory at Chichén Itzá—are based on the spiral shape. So does Frank Lloyd Wright’s dizzying pool of light from a museum, which Vicuña thinks she remembers as a young person, not long after it opened. It’s great to close a circle and have her, rich in work, years and perspective, back there.

Cecilia Vicuna: Spin Trin Triangulene

Through September 5, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, (212) 423-3500; guggenheim.org.

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