Cecilia Vicuña at BAM

I was excited that Cecilia Vicuña would be present at the Berkeley Art Museum for two events in July in conjunction with her exhibition, which also has a catalogue: Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen. Born in Chile, the artist, writer and activist was expelled and exiled in the 1970s during the political conflict, and has lived in London and Colombia, and in New York since 1980. Before the exhibition opened, she gave a poetry reading and book signing; a few days later, she gave what was billed as a "participatory performance." I went to both events, saw the show, and bought her newest book, published by Kelsey Street Press, New and Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña. All of these experiences woven together present both a beautiful and curious picture.

Vicuña began making little sculptures, precarios, she calls them, in 1966 as she collected feathers, shells, sticks, bones, and trash that washed up on shore on the Chilean coast, and has continued making them to this day. In the white box that is the gallery, 110 of these were presented: some on the walls, many on a large, low platform. So small, these natural and human-made materials were poems in whispered conversation. It was an interesting choice to make the viewers either tilt their heads back to look up (for many on the wall), or crouch to peer down. The floor platform is so large you can only see the pieces in the center from a distance.

I found my imagination sparked when I looked at one at a time and took in their shadows as well.

On the wall:

Usually, in a space with multiple, similar works, or works with a shared "vocabulary" as my art historian friend calls it, you would feel a cumulative effect, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But that is not what happens here. Each piece is so small and delicate that if you focus carefully you can picture her at her desk arranging and tying the fragments. Each piece held her careful attention and demands ours. Each piece was made at a different time, and the time spanned fifty years. Having them all on the floor together overwhelmed me, and diminished the effect. Both my friend and I felt they would be better up higher, each on a separate pedestal, where you could get your face in it, walk around it, make yourself tiny and imagine yourself in it. Vicuña said that she wanted space for the viewer in each piece, but we weren't really able to enter that space in this format. Like trying to have a meaningful conversation at a party rather than one-on-one in a café.

There was a short poem on the wall in each room, just a glimpse. After having heard her read, I missed her large presence here. At the reading she had chanted, sang, read, whispered, growled, and smiled and told stories. We had to lean in to listen and sit back to absorb. I had hoped for the same experience in the gallery. Perhaps a recording of her chanting, the volume low, would have amplified the love she had for each tiny object. There are videos elsewhere, but we did not know to go see them.

Being close to the floor suggests bending down to pick up the materials, which is part of her process. Still, I began to want a meandering path, a river, or a shoreline, particularly since water is important to her work. Sounds of water, bowls of it, a fountain, even a stone river would have helped to make it a whole environment. As arranged, my friend felt it was more like a display of macquettes, models, and sketches rather than fully fledged sculptures. Many labyrinths I've visited, such as at the Albany Bulb or up at Sibley Volcanic Preserve in the Oakland hills, have little offerings like these placed in their centers.

Most delightful was a little precario we found hiding in the hall.

So, it seemed, in this space you could only experience the work at its edges.

The artist's books, on the other hand, were displayed more intimately and worked beautifully even though they had to be protected in a vitrine. We could get close to them. They were minimalistic, elegant, showed attention to the line, the thread running through, some with mixed materials. They were mostly quite spare and conceptual. Like the precarios, they were very sensitively put together. The wall text notes the connection of the poetry line and the thread line, between text and textile.  Here, the text and form and materials merged and sang. I've always loved Vicuña's word playfulness and exploration of language, which you can also find in her 1992 book, Unravelling Words and the Weaving of Water. I've taught from that book for years. 

I've tried to match up the wall text to the images.

Libro Acantilado (Cliff Book), 1981-82
Plaster, metal screen, stone, wood, feather

Libro de Errores (Book of Errors) c. 1984
Typing correction strips, thin wood cards, string

bottom: The Sixth Extinction (La Sexta Extinción), c. 1998
Hand-written text on glassine paper, snail shells, black thread

El Album de Papá (My Dad's Album), 2016
Emptied picture album from the 1930s, feathers

Word and Thread (Palabra e Hilo), 1996
Text printed on paper, cardboard, string, edition of 300, Morning Star Publications, Scotland

Beforehand (Antemano), 2011
ink-jet printed, hand-written visual poem, paper, string, pencil

La Realidad es una linea (Reality Is a Line), 1994
Handwritten text on paper, thread, Edition of 500, Belgium

At the Q and A afterwards, Vicuña told us that as a child she was always touching things, and her mother said, "Darling, you don't have eyes in your fingers." But with the precarios and the books you can feel that she does.

In the next galleries, two monumental pieces hang in two connected spaces. One is a raft that holds suspended precarios. The accompanying poem has the phrase: "pitch, a fertile / rite / a little / broken pitch / er ". Her wordplay is in action: pitch can be part of music, part of a jug, how something tilts, and tar coating a boat. The wall text says this one was created with objects found on the  "ever-diminishing Louisiana coast" in reference to climate change and  the "dematerialization" of "1960s Conceptualism." Perhaps we need to continuing bringing this forward to note the conceptualism of today and the emphatic wave of theory and concept over craft and making. With this piece I see more of her exploration of the intersection/confrontation of human-made objects with natural materials, the effects of humans on nature. I think I would have liked to focus more on the raft itself.

The second is a piece that fills the room: cascades of black, gray, red, orange and brown wool. The wall text says it is felt, but it looks more like roving, or only partially felted. Perhaps due to scale, color, and materiality, this work has the most intense presence and impact. This is the somber, resonant party, and we feel invited in; we can both speak in hushed tones and hear.

This wool appeared in the performance as well. Concentric circles on the concrete floor. The spectators on the wood steps of the amphitheater. Cecilia below. 

Walking in slowly. With several young people, her assistants. Wool is pulled off and cradled. Gesturing for members of the audience to take the wool and do the same. Then long pieces unwound and arranged through the crowd. She asks us to put up our arms and wave them. "Raising the children!" she says. She said she was thinking of the children being separated from their parents at the U.S. border. Mural on the wall is by artist and designer from South Africa, Karabo Poppy Moletsane.

I'm not a fan of participatory performance, I feel uneasy about being asked or persuaded to move around in someone else's art. But it was pretty gentle, and others around me felt moved. (I found the reading more compelling, perhaps because of the focus on her and the intimacy of just listening to her voice.) This performance, similar to one in 2015, is also documented in the newest book. 

After the performance, Cecilia told us her mother once said, "Thank God you are tiny because you are so powerful." The smallest things, like a stone in your shoe, she said, can be the most powerful. My friend wrote:
 "the test of this type of art…is not if the audience/participants are made to "feel good" (catharsis is part of the oldest Western tradition), but what are they going to DO? What action will they take as a result of their engagement with the issue of "the children"?
Through her questioning of political systems and traditional methods, I would agree that Cecilia Vicuña and her art are meant to inspire a "call to action," to use a phrase from Patti Smith.  I keep turning over the experiences, wondering at and inquiring of the stone, wondering what I and the audience will do in response.

The exhibition is at BAM until October 14, 2018.

Addendum 8.4.18: Four Shorts on Cecilia Vicuña by Alisa Golden were published at The Ekphrastic Review today, here. They are microfictions based on some of the precarios, shown above.