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Weaving With the Thread of Time: In Conversation with Cecilia Vicuña

Issue 03 Feature

by Jameson Johnson

14 May 2019

Performance View, “Living Quipu,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 19th 2018. Photo courtesy of Binita Patel Photography.

For Cecilia Vicuña, time does not exist in a linear fashion. Rather, the Chilean artist, poet, filmmaker, and activist reaches back and forth through time to recover and reinvent ideological systems, cultural practices, and narratives lost to colonialism. It is difficult to separate the very nature of Vicuña’s being from her work. Her poems, installations, performances, and sculptures are intrinsically intertwined, serving as physical manifestations of her more ethereal practices and philosophies. Since the 1960s, Vicuña has drawn on her own indigenous heritage to create work surrounding the practices, myths, and cosmology of Incan and earlier Andean people, thus facilitating a connection between ancient memory and contemporary cultures.

For decades, Vicuña has created work surrounding the “quipu,” a pre-Columbian record keeping device that used a system of intricate knot-making. The strands of knotted colored thread served complex functions, transmitting statistical or numerical information but also recording stories, poems, and genealogies. Today, less than a thousand quipu remain as a majority were destroyed by Spanish colonizers during the sixteenth century. Quipu-making was a labor intensive process reserved for skilled “quipucamayocs” or quipu specialists. According to Gary Urton, a Harvard professor and leading quipu scholar, the quipu functioned as a language—one that the Spaniards were incapable of deciphering. Though the Spaniards initially utilized the quipu and native administration system to control the geographically large empire, by 1583, the quipu was officially banned. “Quipucamayocs” were often tortured or killed, taking the language of the quipu with them to the grave. This violent erasure by Spanish colonizers has left the quipu with little traceable history, making it nearly impossible to interpret its messages and meaning—an act Vicuña deems an injustice to the knowledge of the universe.

On the occasion of Vicuña’s exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “Disappeared Quipu,” the artist created a site-specific, large-scale installation that stood alongside five historical quipus from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Using massive swaths of unspun wool, the quipu sculpture became a site for visual projections of textiles that Vicuña selected from the Andean collections at the Brooklyn Museum and the MFA.

This exhibition, co-organized by the MFA’s Liz Munsell, curator of contemporary art, and Dennis Carr, curator of American decorative arts and sculpture, presented new avenues for inter-institutional collaboration. Working directly with the Brooklyn Museum since 2016, they considered the relationship between ancient objects and contemporary art in the context of encyclopedic museums. Yet for Carr, the most exciting point of collaboration was between Vicuña and Gary Urton, who was another co-organizer for this exhibition. Though they had known of each other’s work for years, this exhibition provided the first opportunity for the two to meet. “It was fascinating to see how they considered the historical, anthropological, and linguistic nature of the quipu while reconfiguring its impact for viewers in a contemporary art setting,” recalls Carr. It is clear that this exhibition is centered on connectivity, not only in the final presentation, but also in practice. The threads of time are woven together right within the gallery walls.

Vicuña’s quipus have been exhibited around the world, carrying the memory of the indigenous Andean people with them. Yet “Disappeared Quipu” drew an unprecedented direct line between the historical weight of her work and the conceptual nature of her entire artistic practice. In addition to displaying projections of ancient textiles, the artist installed audio devices within the knotted masses of the giant strands of wool, allowing recordings of Vicuña’s poems and songs to fill the gallery space. She speaks in a hushed yet deliberate manner that is contemplative, gentle, and seemingly all-knowing. “Her voice has an almost ancient quality to it,” noted Munsell in an interview. “The fact that her voice will be continually present in the sculpture through the audio that is embedded through the fibers in the installation invites viewers into her presence and her way of moving through the world.” Indeed, being in the presence of Vicuña, or her art, feels like opening a portal to an unplaceable time—somewhere distant and fabled.

Vicuña further facilitates this transcendent connectivity through her sensorial, participatory performances. At her MFA performance in October 2018, Vicuña invited guests to engage directly with the materiality of her quipus, using the same large swaths of raw wool to orchestrate a massive weaving between and around the bodies of audience members. There was an obvious lightness to the material—guests laughed and played in the ocean of wool that surrounded them while Vicuña’s songs rang in the background. This performance was aptly titled “Living Quipu,” representing a celebratory rebirthing of the lost art of the quipu for contemporary audiences. Though this performance clearly intended to deliver a different message than that of her installation, in this moment, the weight of the “Disappeared Quipu” felt misplaced. The sculptures and textiles that Vicuña creates are truly stand-ins for the bodies, spirits, and stories of the ancient people that were made to disappear by colonial practices. However, they are also representative of the beings who were made to disappear by the oppressive and violent policies and dictatorial practices of the second half of the twentieth century.

Vicuña employs both the practice and memory of ancient weaving techniques as a response to contemporary political, environmental, and social violence. Coming of age in the politically turbulent era of the 1960s in Chile, Vicuña took on a form of cryptic resistance in even her earliest work, utilizing the past as an omen for the present and the future. When Pinochet’s violent military regime overtook President Salvador Allende in 1973, Vicuña, like hundreds of thousands of other Chileans, became an exile to her native country. During this time, Vicuña was living in London, where she founded Artists for Democracy, an artist-activist movement that opposed dictatorships in the Third World. Even after her formal exile concluded, Vicuña has continued to find homes outside of Chile; moving to Bogotá, and finally in 1980 to New York, where she has remained ever since. Yet, nearly forty years later, Vicuña’s poetic and visual art production has remained rooted in this practice of unearthing the past and repositioning it for the present.

Pulling the thread of ancient memory through the needle of the present, Vicuña stands in firm opposition to the wash of collective memory that has plagued our contemporary culture. I had the pleasure of meeting with Vicuña during the installation process for “Disappeared Quipu” in October 2018, when we discussed the transcendent nature of her work and its weight in the present moment. The following is an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. October 20, 2018 through January 21, 2019. John F. Cogan, Jr. and Mary L. Cornille Gallery. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Jameson Johnson: There are bits of wool floating around this room already. Could you tell me about the material used in the creation of these large-scale quipus?

Cecilia Vicuña: This is sheep’s wool and it’s a sort of semi-industrial process that imitates an act of pulling the wool from its original ball of hair. First from the ball of hair, you pull the material, and then from the spool you spin.

JJ: When did you first learn to work with wool in this way? Were you taught this practice formally?

CV: Never, never. I come from a family where my mother didn’t know she was indigenous because her culture had been demolished. The language of her ancestors was erased from the planet in the eighteenth century. So my mother only knitted with industrial wool, never spun on her own. So I knew how to knit as a young girl, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned this spinning practice. I went to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and I did a very long journey staying with Indigenous families because I was always passionate for textiles but I had never been educated in the tradition. There, every girl, from age two, was spinning and weaving. I started to observe the way they did it, and I discovered that it all began with this material called unspun wool. The material is closest to the original animal hair.

JJ: What do you hope audiences learn from interacting with your work? Either your installations or your performances.

CV: First and foremost, I want people to know that the quipu exists. The universe of knowledge is expanded by revealing the magnificence of this ancient textile tradition that was made to disappear. Not only was this tradition stolen from the Incan people, the history and knowledge of this complex art form has been stolen from the human psyche. Now, these objects can be viewed in institutions like the Metropolitan Museum or they live in these Western archives, but think about it—those galleries are never full. People do not understand what they are seeing when they look at an ancient quipu because that history has been eradicated and society does not recognize this art. My own indigenous history was erased—my mother and grandmothers were made to feel shame about their DNA. With my poems and performances, the quipu and the spirit of those ancient cultures are activated again.

JJ: You’ve previously mentioned that the formal, or rather, molecular makeup of this material is crucial to the creation of your quipus. What draws you to this unspun wool?

CV: The wool can be pulled because the structure of the animal hair allows it to stick together. They are able to then be stretched and pulled ever so slightly as a collective. One hair will not stretch, but a group of them will bind together and become malleable. I’m interested in that exchange of energy between the fibers. The wool in this state feels and looks like a cloud. I was very struck by the beauty of this material and began working with it in an untraditional way.

JJ: Despite working with these materials in an “untraditional way,” the quipus you create are still activating and reviving a history, culture, and language that has been erased through colonization. Do you consider your work to be expanding the definition of a quipu?

CV: In the native tradition, difference is paramount. Each weaver prides themselves on creating something original. Though I didn’t know about this principle when I was young, I believe it was instilled within me at birth. This coincides with this idea in Western art where your art is valued because it’s an “original” or it’s “unique.” In that sense, the idea of tradition is lost. So I knew I didn’t want to repeat the ancient quipu; rather I wanted to create something in the spirit of the quipu, but it must be the spirit of the quipu translated for the present and future. I did quipus without knots for the longest time. I would use the landscape as a part of my quipu. For example, I would use the river, where the stream would be the vertical line, and I would cross the river with my material to create the horizontal line. But a moment came when I felt that I was past that sort of prohibition. I realized that I could begin to play with knot-making. Once I accepted that, I believe the first quipu I created with knots was in Athens. When I made this piece, I could see that the quipu was happy. The quipu had a new reality when it had its knots. My knots aren’t exactly like the original invention of the quipu…

JJ: But as you said, imitation has never been the objective.

CV: Right, of course. It is the spirit of the quipu that excites me. The quipu works because it is simultaneously here and not here.

JJ: That notion reminds me of quarks, the subatomic particles that are known to exist but are nearly impossible to observe.

CV: Yes! This is interesting that you bring this up because I don’t speak about it too often with my work. Although the information about quantum physics had been around for some time, I only became acquainted with these things when I visited New York in the 1980s. I was already thirty years old. At that time I actually started to compose quipus and performances around the idea of the qubit—a quantum bit. I proposed the notion that a quantum bit is like a quipu too.

JJ: I had no idea! The relativity of time is, of course, a huge component to your art. It is presented in your performances, poems, and durational work. Do you consider time almost as a medium unto itself?

CV: Our understanding of time is so limited. We have very basic markers of time. We live and we die, but what else? In my opinion, a poem is created outside of time entirely. A quipu, on the other hand, is like traveling through time. We all experience this ability to travel back and forth in time in our souls, in our imaginations, and in our hearts. Mathematicians and physicists attempt to create these fantastic theories and equations, but I have been making art about this all along. I think that poetry has given me this gift of knowing. Not every poet has this. I think it is reserved to certain cultures, perhaps. One must open themselves to these other forms of knowing, but Western cultures have suppressed this. I call it a colonization of the mind.

JJ: And in this exhibition at the MFA, your contemporary quipu is actually being displayed in conjunction with ancient quipus from the Incan and Andean civilizations. Presented together, that time-transcending conversation begins to emerge right here in the museum setting. How has the inclusion of these artifacts shaped your approach to creating this installation?

CV: The first time I did a show connecting my work with ancient pieces was at the [University of California,] Berkeley Art Museum in, I believe, 1992, where I was invited to do exactly that. I worked with an anthropology museum [Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology], which at the time was across the street. I spent a week digging through their coffers, and I encountered pieces that looked so much like my own art pieces. I was so shocked. It felt like I had stepped into a time machine. I didn’t understand how this might be possible. I had never seen these objects before, yet my work resembled them. These objects are seldom exhibited in museums because they are often to be considered “garbage” from ancient tombs, but I know that they are sacred. I have been working for my entire life with these sacred debris—the “precarios” and the “basuritas” [precarious art installations and objects composed of found materials]. I believe they are sacred because they involve suffering. Everything has suffered—the sticks, the rocks—everything has endured pain.

JJ: Would you say that your practice seeks to confront that ancestral trauma?

CV: I don’t think my work confronts it as much as faces it. In other words, it is my point of departure. I don’t think it’s something that can even be confronted because it has already happened. You have to allow for your being, your soul, your spirit, and your body to feel that and become fully aware of its importance. We now live in a culture that denies pain and denies trauma, and therefore if you deny that, not only are you bound to repeat it, but you’re bound to live in a world of lies. I think it’s very dangerous not to acknowledge such things. I think it is probably our first task. Otherwise I don’t think there’s going to be any more humanity.

“Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. October 20, 2018, through January 21, 2019 John F. Cogan, Jr. and Mary L. Cornille Gallery. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This interview was originally published in Boston Art Review Magazine Issue 03: Tracing Movement in spring 2019 and is available for purchase here.