For most of a career spanning 50-plus years, Chilean-born artist, poet, and activist Cecilia Vicuña has been ahead of her time. Since starting to write and make art in the mid 1960s, she has focused on environmental and social justice, making her an ecofeminist avant la lettre.
Vicuña’s ongoing project, to link sensuality and environmentalism to women’s and human rights—to, in her words, awaken the world to the “feminine” life force of the earth—encompasses writing, art, and street protests.
Her wide-ranging visual language includes performance, installation, and sculpture as well as painting, to which she has returned in the past decade. She’s also a celebrated writer who has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry.
For years Vicuña’s shows were poorly attended. “No one was interested in climate change then,” she told the Art Newspaper in 2019. But with global warming accelerating and income disparity soaring around the world, Vicuña’s work now seems prescient.
This past spring, along with German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, Vicuña received the Venice Biennale’s prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award, and a major survey of her work, “Cecilia Vicuña: Spin letter Triangulene,” opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in May. This fall, as the 2022 recipient of Tate Modern’s annual Hyundai Commission, she will take over the museum’s massive Turbine Hall.
To illustrate her current relevance, here are seven pivotal works by the artist.
Casa Espiral (Spiral House), 1966
In 1966, on a beach in the Chilean coastal city of Concón, Vicuña created Casa Espiral (1966), the first in an ongoing series of artworks called precarios (“precarious”). After drawing a spiral in the sand, she encircled it with sticks, feathers, plant matter, and other debris, then let the tide wash the fragile arrangement away.
Since creating Casa Espiral, Vicuña has returned many times to the same beach to create versions of the piece. She has made other precarios, incorporating both organic and man-made found objects and occasionally presented on beds of sand, for museum settings.
Ephemeral works with ritual overtones, the precarios honor the natural world and pre-contact cultures. The artist traces their inception to a moment as a teenager when she forced a stick into the sand at Concón, where her family had a vacation home. Nearby, an oil refinery had been built on ancient Andean sacred ground; Vicuña has recalled seeing the soles of her feet blackened by pollution and her simultaneous insight that all actions and objects are entwined.
Of mixed European and Amerindian descent herself, Vicuña has long been inspired by Indigenous cultures’ acceptance of their interrelationship with nature; in her work she has drawn parallels between the destruction of those cultures with the destruction of the environment. In a recent interview with Guggenheim curator Pablo León de la Barra, she stated, “The fact that everything is relation, everything is interaction, that is the core of Indigenous thinking. And it’s precisely what the culture that now rules the world—the culture of greed, the culture of extraction, the culture of exploitation—has denied: that relationship, the entanglement, the interaction between all phenomena, all cultures.”
Janis Joe (Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker), 1971
For decades Vicuña’s paintings were a little-known facet of her output. As a teenager she made abstract paintings; a short time later she began to produce surrealistic figurative canvases reminiscent of traditional Chilean arpilleras—stitched works by women that record public and life events.
As with her other choices of materials and methods, Vicuña’s deliberately folkloric style is an act of rebellion against imposed structures—in this case, the eschewal of European oil painting traditions in favor of local and Indigenous forms of communication and expression.
Janis Joe (Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker), currently on display in the Guggenheim’s retrospective, is dense with references to the politics and popular culture of the 1970s. In it, Janis Joplin, naked from the waist down, takes center stage. Orbiting around her are, among other figures, the English rock star Joe Cocker, Angela Davis joyously fleeing prison, a teenage Vicuña menstruating for the first time, and a pair of women erotically entwined in a bathroom.
Karl Marx, 1972
In 1972 Vicuña relocated to the United Kingdom, where she pursued postgraduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. In the paintings she made there she continued to explore the same themes of resistance and liberation she had been refining since the 1960s.
Karl Marx (1972) was the first in Vicuña’s 1970s series of portraits, “Heroes of the Revolution,” depicting famous socialist politicians. In it she places the coauthor of the Communist Manifesto amid flowering trees, with a woman in stockings and garter on one side and an amorous couple on the other. About this painting she wrote, “In order to exalt Marx, I wanted to associate him with ideas that dogmaticians consider way removed from him, such as eroticism, poetics, blues, jazz and rock, female and homosexual liberation and that I consider intrinsic to the revolution.”
Menstruation Angel, 1973
Menstruation—a symbol of fertility and feminine power as well as a bodily function often surrounded by taboos in patriarchal societies—is a recurrent subject in Vicuña’s art. Her 1973 self-portrait, Menstruation Angel, which shows a menstruating Vicuña miraculously spinning in space (in the artist’s words, “like a subatomic particle”), reclaims a proscribed subject as a symbol of resistance.
Following the violent overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende’s socialist government in September 1973, Vicuña stopped painting. Four decades later, British art historian Dawn Ades discovered Vicuña’s surviving canvases, which were subsequently shown at Documenta 14 in 2017. The attention inspired Vicuña to take up painting once more, recreating, from memory or from archival photos, works that had been lost in the intervening years.
Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens), 2017
Vicuña stayed on in London until 1975, when she moved to Bogotá, Columbia. In 1980 she relocated to New York City; she now divides her time between Santiago and New York.
In addition to her precarios and basuritas (“little rubbish” or “little garbage”)—sculptures fashioned from man-made waste materials—Vicuña also makes hanging fiber works that reference quipus, the collections of knotted threads, hung from a horizontal stick or cord, once used by pre-Columbian Andean cultures to record information.
Her updated versions of the quipu often mark events or voice her protest against the destruction of vulnerable communities or ecosystems. For example, the black, red, and white Extermination Quipu (2022), now on view at the Guggenheim, is ominously threaded with wire and hair, perhaps alluding to erasure of Indigenous cultures, while the ash gray and orange Burnt Quipu from 2018 commemorates California’s 2018 fires.
Quipu Womb—a massive installation consisting of 24-foot-long, knotted strands of blood-red raw wool hanging from the gallery ceiling—debuted in 2017 in Athens as part of Documenta 14. Intended to connect Andean mythologies with those of ancient Greece, it celebrates, like Menstruation Angel, the continuity of life.
Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood, 2017
Fashioned from Styrofoam, plastic, fishing rope, feathers, twigs, and other flotsam scavenged from the Louisiana coast, this 42-foot-long sculpture is Vicuña’s cri de coeur about climate change and rising sea levels. The Balsa (“raft”) of the title evokes memories of Hurricane Katrina and provokes an urgent question: How exactly will humanity keep itself afloat?
Living Quipu, January 9, 2021
From the beginning, performance has been a key medium for Vicuña, both as a vehicle for protest and as a collective experience. In 1979, while living in Bogotá, Vicuña staged El Vaso de Leche (“The Glass of Milk”). Assembling an audience in front of the 19th-century home of revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar, she used a red string tied around a glass of white paint to tip the glass over, calling attention to the deaths of nearly 2,000 children, poisoned because merchants were adding water and paint to milk to cut costs.
Vicuña’s quipus are also at times sites of participatory performances, as Living Quipu was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2019. In these activations of her sculptural installations, she wraps and covers viewers in wool and fabric, making their experiences and memories part of a present-time quipu.