What does it mean to present fragility at a massive scale? Artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña has been considering this question for the past few months while been working on her Turbine Hall Commission for Tate Modern. In a press conference on Monday, Vicuña recalled that this inquiry was quickly followed by another regarding the coldness of Turbine Hall: “How can you make it warm?”
On opposite ends of the space, in a presentation organized by Catherine Wood and Fiontán Moran, Vicuña is presenting the most ambitious iteration to date in her series of her quipu sculptures. The work, titled Brian Forest Quipu, relates to her view that “the Earth is a brain forest, and the quipu embrace all its interconnections,” she has written.
Vicuña has been working with these quipu installations for decades, but only recently have they received greater attention within the art world. In 2017, for example, the triumphant Quipu Womb (The Story of Red Thread, Athens) was one of the starring works of the Athens portion of Documenta 14. Three quipu pieces also debuted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this year as part of a survey of her work.
Vicuña’s quipus draw on the traditions of the Quechua people of the Andes, which date as far back as 2500 BCE. The quipus served as systems of record-keeping and communication for these people. In Vicuña’s hands, they point toward themes surrounding womanhood, memory, loss, trauma, and much more.
These twinned installations, which hang some 88½ feet from the ceiling, are monumental in scale and awe-inspiring. They don’t take up too much space in Turbine Hall. Instead, they transform the iconic industrial space into a place for quiet reflection, a feat for the bustling hall in one of London’s most heavily attended museums. In front of the quipu toward the rear of Turbine Hall are several low, wood benches that offer a different viewing experience from walking in and out of the sculpture.
From two spider-web like frames, these two quipus, done in shades of white, off-white, and beige, delicately and effortlessly hang in the space. Entrails of wispy un-spun wool, plant fibers, rope, and more cascade from the ceiling. To these Vicuña has added various objects—fishnets, pottery fragments, clay pipes, tree branches found along the River Thames—to their structures. They seem as though they could collapse at any second, but Vicuña herself considers them strong.
In addition to these quipus, Vicuña has created two “sound quipus,” unique eight-hour compositions, done in collaboration with composer Ricardo Gallo, that emanate from speakers encased within the unspun wool. Birds chirp, waves crash, drumming slowly intensifies. In between each of these sounds, there’s complete silence. At times the two soundtracks overlap, but often they alternate with one another. In the gaps between them, you begin to notice the thrumming sound of the museum as its visitors go about their business.
These works may be beautiful, but Vicuña is also addressing one today’s most pressing issues: the destruction of rainforests around the world, whose deaths—“murders,” as Vicuña puts it—are “crimes against humanity, crimes against our planet. … I do not understand why the world allows this.”
In 1977, when she was in her 20s, Vicuña crossed the Amazon on land. That rainforest, she said, “is not something distant. It lives in my heart,” she said. The piece then becomes one of mourning for this violence—and also, perhaps, a way forward.
“I think this awakening of the art community of the world … is the key here,” Vicuña said. “All of us cultural workers of this planet are the bridge between the people who are already aware of this disaster and [those] in total denial. So if my work—my art and poetry—serve to transform this bridge, I am honored because this coming from the heart. Rainforests are not something I am thinking about—the rainforest is how the earth thinks of itself.”