Cecilia Vicuña’s Desire Lines
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When Cecilia Vicuñacame to Manhattan in 1980, she had no plans to stay — but for Vicuña, an artist in exile from Pinochet’s Chile, plans didn’t matter much. She had been in the city for less than a week when she crossed paths with an Argentine painter and moved into his unfinished loft in TriBeCa. There were few streetlights then, so the block turned black at night, and the ruins of an old overpass sliced through the neighborhood. She could smell the Hudson River — it was so close — but it was cut off by a junkyard of car parts and a wall of barbed wire. Still, she would visit the water every afternoon, peering through a crevice in the hulking mountain of metal. She needed to know the river survived, kept flowing, even though it was polluted, teeming with traffic, almost invisible from where she stood. This elemental friendship sustained her in the foreign city.
One day she noticed a gap in the wire near the ground and began to dig — “like the dog I am,” she joked recently. The tunnel was small, but so was she — 5 feet, 100 pounds — and she scrambled through, over rusted hubcaps and slabs of concrete slick with seaweed, finally able to greet the river face to face.
Soon, the tunnel was bigger — others had followed the desire line she made. Now and then she would notice someone else sunning on the rocks, or fishing, or smoking at sunset, and they would wave across the breezy brightness.
For years the riverfront stayed savage, undeveloped, the province of sex workers and artists and other wayward lives. The Argentine painter claimed the loft as his studio, so Vicuña spent her days working this urban in-between, sending little sculptures to sail in the gutters, drawing on the sidewalks and building fantastical cities from trash and driftwood at the river’s edge, where the tide would drown them almost as soon as they had risen — as if rehearsing, in miniature, the many climate catastrophes yet to come. When it rained, enormous pools would gather at the intersection, reflecting purple clouds, and Vicuña would roll up her pants to weave strings across the surface, so the pools were marked as portals where the world appeared reversed. She wanted her own debris and “the debris created by life itself” to mingle. On a snowy sidewalk, she lined up little sticks tufted with wool — a herd of abstract animals that would soon sink down the gutter drain with condoms and cigarette butts. She wonders, now, if anyone noticed those little trash treasures — basuritas, she calls them, precarios — or stooped to pick them up. She couldn’t imagine she was the only one who scanned the city’s understory for scraps of beauty.
‘‘Precarious Improvisation’’ (2009).Credit…Photograph by James O’Hern. From Cecilia Vicuña and Lehmann Maupin
Vicuña is 74 and has lived in the same loft for 42 years. She has cultivated the same plot in her local community garden for almost that long, growing tomatoes and seven types of basil, at least until Sept. 11 made the soil toxic and she switched to flowers. There have been many changes: The Argentine painter moved out, and the American poet James O’Hern moved in. The big windows that once faced the river are now blocked by high-rises, and she is one of the last remaining tenants from the original co-op. Pinochet’s regime ended in 1990, so she is free to move between her adoptive home and her native Chile. The ragged riverfront was renovated — a sleek park full of promenading financiers — but she still walks there daily, squatting to examine a butterfly gorged on milkweed or to scold a pair of children trampling the tulips.
Despite early flashes of fame — she was 18 when she published her first poems and 23 when she had her first museum exhibitions — Vicuña has mostly worked at the fringes of the art establishment, sustained by a grass-roots network of translators, ethnographers and activists. It’s almost impossible to summarize the kaleidoscopic range of her practice. She has filled galleries with autumn leaves and improvised rituals of protest on the summits of glaciers. Her poems — loose braids of Spanish, English, Sanskrit, Quechua, Latin and more — sometimes unravel into line drawings on the page. Several have circulated as slogans among activists from Delaware to Santiago: the water wants to be heard, or tu rabia es tu oro — your rage is your treasure. Her bold, mystical paintings immortalize the Mazatec shaman María Sabina and the Chilean musician Violeta Parra, as if Giotto were commissioned to produce a series of broadsides for the Latin American left. Her portrait of Karl Marx, recently acquired by the Guggenheim, envisions him haloed with roses in a dense, dreamy forest where women make love.
She has never stopped “weaving in all the wrong places” (her words): mapping a childhood bedroom in blue thread, tracing words and shapes among the branches of graffiti-scarred trees, linking the bodies of strangers in live performance. She is perhaps best known for her “quipus,” a sculpture series that reimagines the Andean inscription system of knotted cords. Some quipus descend from high ceilings like the bloody entrails of ancient matriarchs; others are nothing more than plaits of grass. Form, for her, is inseparable from transformation — the many ways one idea might manifest.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that legacy institutions have taken so long to recognize the complexity of Vicuña’s creative ecosystem. Her name does not appear in Artforum’s online archives until 1992. She wasn’t represented by a proper gallery — Lehmann Maupin — until 2018, and that’s when she could finally afford a stand-alone studio. “Spin Spin Triangulene,” on view at the Guggenheim through Sept. 5, is her first solo museum show in New York City in the four decades she has lived and worked downtown. This has been her time in the spotlight: A traveling survey, curated by Miguel A. López, has drawn huge crowds in Madrid, Mexico City and Bogotá. In April, at the Venice Biennale, where she was showing a major new work, she was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the first time this honor went to a Latin American woman. In October, she will take over the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall for a monumental installation. Paradoxically, the coincidence of so many exhibitions means that none of these is a proper retrospective: Her work, like her life, is scattered between continents.
It’s possible to understand this flurry of attention as one consequence of the long labor of curators and critics to “recover” overlooked women artists — sometimes so belatedly that the artists have not been able to attend their own exhibitions. The Cuban-born abstract artist Carmen Herrera was 101 when her show at the Whitney opened in 2016. Etel Adnan, the Lebanese American poet and painter, died at age 96 while her Guggenheim show was on view last year. Two of today’s most celebrated feminist artists from Vicuña’s generation — Ana Mendieta and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha — died violently before they turned 40. By comparison, Vicuña is “lucky” to be spry enough to engage this moment of recognition. But the cost of belatedness is real for her too: Every time we spoke, she was “muerta,” “despilada,” “exhausta,” run ragged by relentless institutional demands. She has survived by lying on her back whenever and wherever she needs to power down — on a sunny park bench, in a corner of the Guggenheim gallery, on the big soft rug between her bookshelves at home. This is her practice of “being nothing.” Then she gets up and resumes her work.
“It’s chaotic to receive 50 years’ worth of attention all at once,” observed Teresita Fernández, the Cuban American artist, who has grown close to Vicuña after they met several years ago through their shared gallery. “It comes too hard and too fast.” There’s also a cost that we bear, as would-be inheritors of her legacy: “Nothing ever happens in real time. There’s always a displacement.” When Fernández was coming up through art school in the 1990s, there wasn’t a single artist of Latin American descent on the syllabus. “That intergenerational knowledge and protection is missing. You don’t have protection from your elders because you don’t even know who they are.” Perhaps that’s why Vicuña has taken so much care to cultivate technologies of transmission: translations, anthologies, collaborations with younger artists. Whenever we talked, she emphasized the names of her predecessors as if passing on rare seeds for future migrations: Gabriela Mistral, José Lezama Lima, Leda Valladares.
Vicuña’s work confronts our hemisphere’s long history of environmental devastation, patriarchal violence and Indigenous erasure. But for her, these collective losses are tangled up with more personal losses. A conversation about the destruction of the Mayan codices centuries ago might lead her to lament how many of her own books were stolen by ex-lovers or how many paintings disappeared in the chaos of the military coup. As if to defend against these losses, her loft is a labyrinth of bookshelves and cardboard boxes containing decades of half-organized notebooks, manuscripts, drawings, tapes, fliers, photographs and correspondence. “I have that here somewhere,” she often says midsentence. If she could just find the right folder, she promised to show me the 2,000-page “Diario Estúpido” she kept between 1966 and 1971, as she came of age amid Chile’s Socialist revolution.
She knows her contributions have been neglected by critics and collectors — “despreciada,” quite literally underpriced — but “she has believed in her own mythology for a very long time,” Fernández told me. She reached for a common phrase in Spanish to describe Vicuña’s quality of radiant self-possession: luz propia. That’s right, I think — not propia in the sense of private or proprietary, but inborn, the way the stone secures its own presence or the sun shines for free.
When I visited Vicuña by the piers one day in June, she asked me which way the river flowed. I couldn’t tell: The silver surface glittered with a confusion of micromovements. The Lenape, she told me, called it the River That Runs Both Ways, for the estuary’s complex crosscurrents of salt and fresh water. It was not the first time she taught me a name I didn’t know or revealed the hidden roots of words I thought I did. Sometimes she used straight etymology, and sometimes she used a poetic technique she had developed for years: palabrarmas, a Spanish portmanteau of word and weapon, or, alternatively, pa’ labrar más, to work more, as a jeweler works an uncut gem to make the facets shine. We stopped at the end of the pier, leaning into the space the Indigenous name opened up for us. Below us we noticed a sector of the tidal zone where a grid of white string organized a fragile crop of reeds and rushes. A sign explained the city’s meager experiment in “rewilding” the wetlands. We laughed over the resemblance to her own decades of riverside weaving: “My best works,” she said, “are the ones I don’t make.”
Vicuña was born in 1948 and spent her early years living with her father’s extended family in La Florida, an undeveloped stretch of land just south of Santiago. She went to the local public school, made of adobe, and at home she ran wild with roosters in the orchards, bathing her dolls in the irrigation ditch, eating purple grapes from the vine. There was no television, but there was a vast library in five languages, where Vicuña would read “The Divine Comedy” in Italian and absorb what she could: “Not understanding opened the door to other forms of imagining.” Her grandfather, a principled lawyer, defended Pablo Neruda in court when the government wanted him jailed for his politics. Her grandmother was a sculptor, and her Tía Rosa worked with clay she gathered herself from the mountains. They let Vicuña play “like a little rat in their studios — nobody paid particular attention.”
Her mother’s people were of Indigenous Diaguita descent and came from a humble town called Los Andes. There was art in that family, too: Her mother, Norma, sang boleros, staged ballets with the children in the yard and painted household linens with birds and flowers. No one else considered Norma an artist, but she was her daughter’s greatest muse and ally: “She converted her life into an art form.”
In many ways, Vicuña’s upbringing was ideal. She had access to the resources of high culture, without the restrictions of formal education: “I was not instructed, so I was able to keep my freedom.” Her family spent summers in Concón, where the Aconcagua River feeds into the Pacific, leaving rich deposits of driftwood, shells and pebbles on shore. Vicuña has often referred to this beach as her “mine,” in ironic contrast to the industry that still serves as the cornerstone of Chile’s economy. Even back then, Concón wasn’t pure. Chile’s first oil refinery was built there, she told me, on the site of an Indigenous cemetery, and she remembers how the runoff turned her feet black with tar. But this is also where she learned to understand her sand spirals and tidal sculptures as a form of listening. She was not alone, perceiving the elements; the elements were also perceiving her. Later, she would explain how her work has always involved “responding to a sign, not imposing a mark.”
There were signs coming from the sea, and there were also signs coming from the streets, where a Socialist revolution was gaining momentum. In 1970, the Chilean people narrowly elected Salvador Allende as president. The new Popular Unity government transformed society, redistributing huge tracts of land from rich to poor, raising the minimum wage and establishing scholarships for Mapuche children. Vicuña’s favorite slogan from that period was “Ahora somos nosotros.” In a conversation with the curator Camila Marambio, she explained why: “It meant that we were one, as a people. It meant that now we owned our own resources, because copper had been nationalized.” But for her, “it translated to the freedom to be what we were, you know? Something chaotic, chacotero.” Ricardo, her younger brother, remembers Santiago as “the Berlin of Latin America”: He would walk home from downtown through the corridors of an infinite carnival. In a city of almost three million, “there were hundreds of independent theater companies.” Vicuña has described how she and her cousin collaborated with textile workers to dramatize, for example, the story of how their factory was nationalized. They would perform a scene for them, then ask for feedback: “How did things really happen?” “What changes do you propose?”
Other days, her revolutionary practice was nothing more than dancing naked to Aretha Franklin or meeting up with friends — she called the group Tribu No — to disrupt an international writer’s conference with fliers reading “LONG LIVE THE DISPLACED” and “DESERVE WHAT YOU DREAM.” In photographs from this period, she is tangled in a nest of limbs, or in fishnets and a bright mantilla, kneeling at an invisible altar like a psychedelic bride. Her extended family, who played such an important role in nourishing her creativity when she was a child, withheld their admiration now that her art “was no longer recognizable” within established genres. Even her father, who once built her a studio in the garden, lamented: “What was the point of all your education? All the Renaissance books I gave you if you’re going to paint like this?” But the ecstasy of the collective experiment fortified her sense of purpose.
On Sept. 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet led the military in a C.I.A.-supported coup against Allende’s government. Vicuña had recently arrived in London for a scholarship at the Slade School of Fine Art. That night she felt political grief rise through her like a sickness as she painted. “Death was laughing in me,” she wrote later. “A huge blood-clot fell into the sea.” For several weeks, there was no news from home, and when it arrived, she learned that a classmate, the folk singer Victor Jara, had been tortured: Soldiers crushed his hands, then told him to play guitar. Soon, her father lost his job managing public pensions — pensions would be private now — and her uncle, a Communist doctor, was one of at least 1,000 disappeared. Many of her paintings were lost — at least 40 percent, she estimated recently, with one bayoneted by soldiers of the new regime. Pinochet set fire to leftist literature and painted over murals. This trauma opened up a new dimension in her work. “If we are to be made into litter and castoffs, then fine, I assume that position,” she wrote to a friend years later. “I am garbage and a castoff, and that is my language — the exploded fragment.”
In London, she doubled down on collective action, co-founding “Artists for Democracy” to lend support to the Chilean resistance. But relationships ruptured over differences in strategy, and she could sense she was in danger of becoming the art scene’s Third World pet. So she left. When she returned to Latin America in 1975, she sank to the ground and wept: Bogotá “was far from Santiago, but it was the same spine.”
The familiar mountain air went straight to her head: She painted a self-portrait as an “animal andino”: la vicuña. Indigenous to the highest regions of the Andes and related to llamas and alpacas, vicuñas are small, slender and difficult to domesticate, with hair finer than cashmere. It’s a strange serendipity that Cecilia’s Basque surname should echo the Quechua wik’uña so closely and link her European and Amerindian lines by way of sonic correspondence. This creature became an avatar of her deepening journey into Native America. She studied the Mayan glyphs, traversed the Amazon and ran workshops for the Guambiano community in the highlands of western Colombia: “The way they listened to each other, and everything around them, created a sort of collective ‘music,’” she told Marambio. Together, these experiences convinced Vicuña that the future of Latin American culture would have to evolve from Indigenous thought.
Vicuña had always promoted “the other poetry” — the folk songs, catcalls and protest anthems, “popular and anonymous,” that fertilize institutional literature from below. But in the city, she lived by her word “as a woman troubadour,” performing her erotic poems with a musical trio. She became a local celebrity when the juror for a government contest revealed that she had lost the prize because of the transgressive content of her work — “censorship,” she wrote, “made me an oral poet” and inspired experiments with new forms. In 1980, she made her first film: “What Is Poetry to You?” She roamed the streets of Bogotá, posing the question to bus drivers, policemen, street performers and the patrons of a juke joint called El Goce Pagano — Pagan Pleasure. My favorite scene takes place in a brothel, where several sex workers agree to participate so long as their faces aren’t shown. The camera follows one john in a suit down the sea-green hall, and then a woman speaks: “Whether you like it or not, everything can inspire you” — even oral sex bought and sold, even forced migration. “Experience is expensive, isn’t it?”
In those years, poetry was Vicuña’s most reliable passport. When she first came to New York, she was often hungry, surviving on nothing more than pizza slices and Orange Julius, but her life was full of serendipities. She met the writers Edwin Torres and Amiri Baraka; the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite hosted her in his N.Y.U. seminar. The art critic Lucy Lippard invited her to join the feminist Heresies Collective, alongside Lorraine O’Grady and Ana Mendieta. But despite all this hospitality, Vicuña was still an anomaly among the avant-garde. Her longtime translator, Rosa Alcalá, told me by phone how difficult it must have been “to be a woman who looks like Cecilia” — fine-boned, brown-skinned, with a quavering, accented voice — to navigate the institutions where she performed. But she never tried to “master her situation of displacement” by preparing a script or memorizing a series of choreographed gestures. Instead, she improvised, creeping out from the crowd where she would often go unnoticed, beginning to whisper and keen until the audience, startled, looked around for the source of the sound that would soon become a poem.
I first met Cecilia Vicuña in the eye of her storm of celebrity and the birthplace of global finance: Venice. It was the week before the Biennale opened to the public, the so-called vernissage, when art-world insiders and cultural aristocrats descend upon the Floating City’s canals, palazzos and hotel rooftops to overdose on Aperol and art. We made a plan for Easter Sunday — a rare Easter that coincided with Passover and Ramadan, so triply holy — and when I woke the sky had pitched its blue tent high in celebration. I would pick her up where she was staying, and we would walk together to see some old paintings at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Dorsoduro.
Vicuña looked out of place on the Grand Canal: homespun and spirited, in faded brown corduroys, pink leg warmers and a long black and silver braid tied off with red thread. But the aesthetic contrast only intensified the electricity of her natural beauty — she shimmered, like a fish, through the sludge of tourists. She would often dart ahead as if she knew where we were going, then double back, pointing out a pair of spiraled window grates or an androgynous winged deity perched on a cupola, a screaming face where the genitals would be. Realism is so often revered as Europe’s great achievement that it’s easy to forget the wild mysticism of many Renaissance artifacts. The tradition’s canonical scenes — annunciations, resurrections, saintly transfigurations — are unavoidably miraculous, no matter how they’re rendered.
Vicuña often narrates her life as a series of revelations: In 1969, she was in New York City for the translation of her first book of poetry when she stopped dead on the sidewalk, overcome by a vision of her future paintings. She came to call them calcomanías for the way they appeared directly “transferred,” like Christ’s face on the Veronica cloth. Vicuña learned her technique from a brief visit with the Surrealist Leonora Carrington: “There was a layer of transparent paint, and then another layer of transparent paint, and between those you could see the winds of the dead.” But she understood her own images as inheritors of the “Cuzco School,” 17th-century Indigenous painters who subverted Christian iconography under Spanish colonial rule. They furnished avenging angels with modern rifles and Incan textiles, crowned Madonnas with ostrich feathers and flattened linear perspective to produce intensely colored, swirling visions of a cosmos in crisis. I wondered whether we would be able to see any echoes of her work through the Venetian looking glass.
At l’Accademia, the vaulted hall glowed with gold leaf. Right away, we were stunned into silence by an enormous altarpiece teeming with skeletons, angels, the Whore of Babylon on her seven-headed steed. I didn’t have to look hard for the echo I had hoped to find: There, clutching the Book of Life, was a winged lion studded with a hundred tiny eyes — a close cousin of Vicuña’s “Leoparda de Ojitos” (1977), likewise ablaze “with eyes instead of pores.” She could not explain this correspondence in terms of influence, because she hadn’t seen anything like that altarpiece before. There was, indeed, a deep chasm between those two feline figures — the colonial cataclysm that made us modern. But Vicuña was interested in a more direct channel of communication. She turned to me, remembering how her mother admonished her as a child: “Don’t touch: You don’t have eyes in your fingertips.” But we do, don’t we? In many times and places, people have imagined what it might mean to see with other senses. Even the white leopard’s presence in precolonial Indigenous art was a kind of prophecy of the world’s real possibilities: For them, the animal was mythical, while half a world away it was stalking the Himalayas. In Vicuña’s painting, the white leopard opens her knees toward the viewer, pink slit shining like the keyhole to another dimension.
I met Vicuña’s mother, Norma, the next day, when she arrived after a 26-hour journey from Chile. Norma was known to her friends as “la reina del mambo,” and even at 97 there was a Caribbean flavor to her social style — playful, flirtatious, audaciously familiar. The Biennale had chosen a detail from one of Vicuña’s paintings — “Bendígame Mamita” — for one of its promotional posters, and Norma never tired of seeing her own eye, matched to the mouth of a guitar, flanking vaporetti on the Grand Canal. It was easy to let Vicuña’s family — Norma, Ricardo and his daughter Fernanda — gather me up in their traveling tertulia, to steel myself against the Biennale’s aristocratic chill with their Latin American warmth. Ricardo had worked in television for many years, and now he was working on a documentary about his sister’s work. More than once, Norma attracted a crowd with her singing.
Vicuña revealed another Venice beneath the Biennale’s lacquered exterior. The first Venetians, she told me, were fishermen who lived in stilted huts on the tidal flats. When the Huns invaded Rome, waves of displaced people sought safety in the salt marshes, and that’s how the city grew — as a refuge from imperial wars. Now the tourists in the old city outnumber actual residents, who’ve been priced out to Marghera and Mestre, in the mainland outskirts. Vicuña had spent the previous month with local activists, learning what she could about the lagoon’s ecosystem and the movement to expel cruise ships. When I got back from the Surrealism show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, she told me how the Guggenheim family once owned nitrate mines in Chile — everywhere, the sound of the art machine whirring, turning blood money to good taste.
One night, Lehmann Maupin hosted a dinner in Vicuña’s honor at the Hotel Danieli: peonies, strawberry rossinis and the view so vast from the top floor that I could see an oil refinery melting on the blue horizon. When Vicuña got up to address the crowd of collectors and critics, we were forced to hold our breaths and sit very still to hear her speak: “All the exhibitions I’m doing for you” — her soft voice was almost a hiss — “are concerned with the magnificent movement to divest. Because I don’t think we are given more time. This is the time for all of us present in this room to put our hearts, our money, our everything in the service of the healing of this earth. And that is the main art.”
It wasn’t just her message that tightened the subsequent silence, but her tone — fierce and wounded, like the signature “torn sound” of Chilean folk music. She was teaching us to hear the dissonance already in the room.
“NAUfraga,” Vicuña’s installation in the Biennale’s central pavilion, stresses the present-tense catastrophe of the Latin word for “shipwreck” — “everything that’s left floating once we’re gone, our remains.” A fragile web sags gently beneath the gallery’s skylight, with bits of weathered rope and thin scrolls of fishing net suspended from it. All the heaviest elements are clustered near the top, as if the forest canopy were sifting a heavy rain — just mist at ground level, a few sticks strung together like wind chimes, a cloud of hot pink mesh, a pale blade of driftwood nearly brushing the floor. The door to the gallery’s back garden was always opening and closing, so the breeze made everything sway. When I leaned in to examine a complex knot of bulbed seaweed and blue twine, a tufted stem snagged my sweater, as if to say, Pick me. Whittled bones and loops of yarn look like tools recovered from an underwater kingdom, the flutes and harps of an alien music.
Vicuña told me she knew the origins of every element. There were native grasses from the lagoon and detritus left behind by artists setting up next door. A twig twisted by the sea, serpentine, was from Concón. An electric chip from the streets of SoHo. A jangling cord of pearlescent pink shells from Long Island. Why should we linger over trash like that, or find it beautiful? Especially the bright plastics, deadly for the fish and coral they resemble? Maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. “In the Andes people say an image hears, a textile sees,” Vicuña says in a poem. “But there is no word for ‘beauty’ (a song must never strike a right note)/you say K’isa instead,/the slow power to transform.”
The day before my flight home, I ran into an English art critic at a cafe in San Marco. He said he wished the show had featured one of Vicuña’s monumental works, like the 26-foot quipu exhibited at Documenta 14 that first awakened the art world to the power of her vision. But I was glad she had resisted the grandeur of the setting and strained something more delicate from the doomed lagoon. Andean quipus, anyway, aren’t monumental. In fact, when they first arrive at museums, they often look like nothing so much as basuritas, tangles of dirty spaghetti. It’s only once they’re combed out that their mysterious complexity reveals itself: one long cord hung with multicolored, finely knotted pendants.
Vicuña can’t recall how she was introduced to the concept of the quipu, or even the first time she saw an authentic example in real life. When she was growing up in Chile, the school curriculum was completely Eurocentric; there were no museums of pre-Columbian art in the capital. Perhaps, she speculates, there might have been a small photograph or description in one of her Tía Rosa’s books about Indigenous art, a rare resource imported from abroad by her world-traveling scientist husband. It would be many years before she tried to fashion her own physical quipu, but what she did right away was take note of her vision of “the quipu as an idea, an image.” Vicuña’s vision emphasizes the “non word/within/words” that motivates our restless meaning making, before any given form is chosen.
The word quipu is Quechua for “knot,” a metonym for the inscription system of knotted cords developed in the Andes over 5,000 years ago. Most scholars have focused on the quipu’s administrative function in the Incan empire: Colonial chroniclers describe bureaucrats using quipus to record tribute payments, work schedules, census information, inventories, criminal trials, calendars, routes and ritual sacrifices. Runners crisscrossed the Cordillera delivering quipu messages, and quipu masters kept careful archives in the imperial capital Cuzco. “No early Spanish colonist is known to have made a concerted effort” to achieve quipu literacy, Frank Salomon wrote in his book “The Cord Keepers,” and in 1583, the Third Council of Lima ordered the destruction of quipus and persecuted known masters of the art. For over a century — much longer than generally believed — Andean people still secretly maintained more local, vernacular forms of inscription: knotting bits of straw to manage herds, or using string to track confessions and remember catechisms as they were forcibly Christianized. But the coordinated system of the Incan empire unraveled.
Scholars have mostly relinquished the dream of “cracking” the quipu code. There’s no Rosetta Stone for quipus because quipus were not “in” Quechua or any other spoken language. Instead, a whole range of elements — the color and material of the twisted fibers, the forms and patterned spacing of the knots — carried meaning, and particular combinations corresponded to ideas, objects and activities in the Andean world. Once extracted from their social context — surviving specimens are often “without provenance,” in other words, looted — it’s almost impossible to match any particular quipu to one of the many functions we know they performed. No one today can claim complete quipu literacy, but Andean people still retain elements of the worldview that the quipu helped create.
Vicuña told me she was overcome by a “mania of admiration” when she first learned about the “virtual quipu” called ceque: the 41 invisible sightlines that people held in mind, connecting Cuzco to temples and water sources across the Andes. The anthropologist John Howland Rowe noticed how these sightlines were “beautifully adapted to the Inca system of recording on knotted strings.” There was a reciprocal relationship between the quipu system and the way Andean people mapped their environment and organized experience. It was possible to destroy the physical quipu but more difficult to erase the traces of a spiritual geography in the minds of Andean people. “Being inside the head is the most precious thing about art,” Vicuña wrote in the wall text for her first museum show. “Seeing everything in a different way, even traffic lights or patterns etched on the road … a person might feel part of greater energies moving in space.”
In 1994, Vicuña made a performance called “Ceq’e” on Franklin Street near her loft. All that survives is a photograph of her open palm tangled in red and yellow wool, with five threads extending like fingers beyond the frame. They cast a shadow on the asphalt, as if producing a psychic double. Vicuña told me she had imagined her own hand as Cuzco, the spiritual center of the ceque system. For her, the quipu and the ceque — she thinks of them as one system — are as much about the body as they are about the cosmos. “This multidimensionality,” she said, “is always what’s called me.” Perhaps that’s why the works in her “quipu” series have manifested so variously — including performances, calligrams, sound installations, videos and site-specific weavings. But there’s still something to be said for working through the traditional techniques by hand. In 1991, she made a quipu that she never displayed, practicing the signature “long knot” and twining two colors of yarn together on some pendants. She wanted to feel what those movements were like — to summon them to the surface of her own skin.
When I went to see a pair of quipus in a storage room at the Brooklyn Museum — they lifted layers of tissue paper to let me carefully handle the delicate cream-and-coffee-colored knots — what moved me most were the few cords at the end that hadn’t been tied, that were still waiting for future inscriptions. In her poem “Entering,” Vicuña venerates “ ‘the quipu that remembers nothing,’ an empty string,” and I’d always understood that line as an expression of mourning for lost Indigenous knowledge. But in the presence of these original quipus, I also saw the plain fact of “empty string” as an open invitation to take up the technology’s expressive potential. Even when we’re told there’s “nothing left” to remember, the desire to remember — to return to the material, to mimic the gestures — gives us something we can use. Practice begets knowledge, or at the very least new ways of knowing. What could it mean to write without words? How are we woven into histories we’ve never heard?
Her new installation at the Guggenheim takes up these questions. “Quipu del Extermino / Extermination Quipu” includes a trinity of hanging sculptures — red, black and white — nestled in the two-story bay off the first ramp. When I first visited, she was still assembling the white sculpture: I could see all the elements laid out on three long tables, like relics awaiting forensic analysis. But Vicuña was in the process of rescuing them from such a static fate: Instead, they were being inscribed in a larger story about how we might restore our connections to the ravaged earth. The first two sculptures, already finished, looked as if they had survived a cataclysm — Pablo León de la Barra, one of the show’s curators, called them “skeletons” — as if Frank Lloyd Wright’s white cyclone had stripped flesh from bone.
But she was speaking back to the space herself. She had used a rust-colored crayon to draw a looping web of words directly on the wall: “can we/ack/now/ledge/ex/termi/nation?”; “the quipu is the speaker of blood”; “maximum fragility against maximum power.” There was a transgressive thrill in seeing her familiar handwriting scrawled across the gallery. She had broken the lofty silence of the space. Just up the ramp, they had already installed her new painting, “Three Spirals” — a pit mine oozing blood, a Mayan conch flute seen from the side and the Guggenheim rotunda. I tried to read the symbols left to right like a sentence, but that didn’t make sense. We would need to find a new syntax.
Recently, Vicuña has been making doubles of her lost paintings from the 1970s, from photographs or memory. She always improvises to register the passage of time — adding, for example, fine lines around the eyes of the women. She is filling in the gaps of her own archive, redressing the violence of the coup and repudiating the critics who called those very paintings “rubbish” or “naïve.” And practically speaking, she is producing objects for the market that are much easier to sell than performances, videos or poems. But when I see her at her easel, I can’t help thinking of much older traditions: the scribes who secretly copied out manuscripts by hand under the shadow of book burning, the Renaissance painters who made more than one version of a painting so their work circulated beyond a single site. And then, of course, there’s the long tradition of learning by copying the masters, the same way Vicuña had found her way to her own quipus by loosening and reweaving those ancient knots.
The last time I saw Vicuña before she left for her Latin American tour, she gave me a copy of her new book about Violeta Parra: “Sudor del Futuro,” she called it — “The Sweat of the Future.” I told her I had been listening, on loop, to one of Parra’s most famous songs: “Volver a los Diecisiete,” which begins: “Returning to myself at 17, after living a century, is like trying to decipher signs without the right wisdom.” The lyrics suggest that there might be as much stubborn mystery in our own past as there is in a forgotten script like the quipu. I told Vicuña I wanted to see if we could find the copy of her Diario Estúpido; I wanted to see it for myself. She thought it might be in a corner by her desk, where she had been making a watercolor with strands of saffron. We moved a few big portfolios of drawings out of the way, then two wobbling stacks of files on wheeled dollies. Then we found it: a half-crushed box marked in all caps.
Someone had helped her scan the whole thing already, and there was a primitive finding aid at the top of the box, but her assistant hadn’t explained its logic. I opened the first folder of “huérfanos” — orphaned entries, out of order — and saw that Vicuña had her own system. A cover sheet noted the last time she had read through this folder — July 6, 2013 — with scattered impressions from that reading. “Muy impresionante”;“the inner child is wasted by culture.” Vicuña is concerned about her archive. There’s an institution that’s interested, but first she would have to do a preliminary inventory, and she worries she doesn’t have the money to hire someone trustworthy enough for the task. Even after all her recent accolades, she knows her legacy remains precarious. The art market is fickle, and all manner of calamities — personal and political — can interrupt the careful keeping of a life.
At first, she hovered over my shoulder as I tried to read, but soon she got absorbed in another folder and left me to find my own way through the pages. The first entry I read was from Dec. 3, 1969 — she would have been 21: “I was making my ‘archive’ and clipping news from all over the world. …” Even then, her project was not only personal but a kind of historical scrapbook: She mentions the massacres in Vietnam, the catastrophic effects of DDT in Borneo and how Brazil’s service for the protection of Indigenous people was accused of collaborating with rubber plantations to eliminate surviving tribes from the jungle. “Wasn’t the Age of Aquarius supposed to begin in 1948? … I’m angry with Aquarius, too meek to get his hands dirty down here in our kingdom. The transition is too slow!”
I started to feel, in turn, the slowness of my own progress through those pages — how many I would never read. It was impossible to answer for this tender prophetic record, and all the other tender prophetic records it made me think of, yellowing in other lofts, or landfills, or spiraling inside the minds of women who never sat down to inscribe them anywhere, so that the Diario Estúpido became like the virtual quipu that linked the sacred water sources where one might kneel to drink.
I raised my head from the pages, haunted by everything that wouldn’t make it into the story, and just then Vicuña took my picture, as if what mattered was not so much the words in the diary but the fact of my reading them. I kept going.
Carina del Valle Schorske is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Her first book, “The Other Island,” is forthcoming from Riverhead. Her last feature for the magazine, “Bodies on the Line,” was a deep history of grief and belonging on New York City’s plague-time dance floors. It won a National Magazine Award in April. Stefan Ruiz is a photographer in New York who has published four monographs, with a new one coming out in 2023. He previously taught art at San Quentin State Prison and was the creative director for Colors magazine.