Cecilia Vicuña with Noah Saterstrom for Trickhouse vol 15:


Noah Saterstrom:   When I saw you a couple months ago, we were talking about the show you had just opened in Santiago and you mentioned that young Chilean artists are opening up to the ways you incorporate traditional ritual into your work.  Could you say a little more about that?

Cecilia Vicuña:   Yes, for generations Chileans have ridiculed anything that has to do with indigenous culture, especially ritual, which is at the core.   Ritual is where the transformative power resides. Violeta Parra, the great poet/singer/weaver was laughed at when I was young. She killed herself because no one wanted to hear her. She did not do rituals, but her sound brought the power and emotion of ritual to the fore. Her sound deeply influenced me. My work emerged from this ritual sphere, from the start in the 60's, and has been rejected for this very reason.

But something is happening now. A few years ago (in 2009), a group of young musicians in Santiago (the Pichimuchina) asked me to perform live with them. I arrived at the concert space, "Espacio Nimiku" and saw that a whole evening had been assembled with many bands of urban young musicians performing indigenous music in homage to my l983 film Paracas. That was a huge revelation to me. Somehow, young people had rebelled against the dominant prejudice to embrace the despised sounds, and were making great music!!!! This is truly a great cultural change, an explosion of creativity that honors Violeta and the suppressed pioneers of the 60's. 


NS:  Then, can you say something about how your work is received by the Art establishment?  Curators, critics and others in the Art worlds centers of ambition are not known for embracing overt and earnest spirituality by artists.  Has that been your experience?

CV:   Lucy Lippard said something like: "the art market killed art", or did she?  Perhaps my memory is creating that memory.  I just googled the phrase and could not find it, instead I found other quotes by her: "The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation. " or the struggle of  "feminist art to avoid being devoured and devitalized by an omnivorous art market".  

I wanted to begin with her.  I met Lucy in l980, when I arrived in New York.  She immediately invited me to join the Heresies collective, and this amazing group of women embodied, then and now, a tense relationship with what people call "the art establishment." In my early years, as I worked in the streets of Santiago or in lonely beaches, I imagined my art could exist entirely outside the "art world", but this of course is not possible.  In l969, suddenly a great artist, Nemesio Antúnez was named director of the Fine Arts Museum in Santiago. That changed the field forever, for me and many other artists: he announced we was going to reverse the established view of art, opening the museum to the young. I immediately went to see him, and he gave me my first one-woman show at the top place in Chile. I was 23 years old. I learnt from him, that a whole line of fantastic people existed within the so called "art establishment", to subvert and transform it. And somehow I find them, or they find me.  So I have managed to maintain this magical outsider/rejected/included relationship to the art world for many decades. It is thanks to them, the visionaries that work from within. I consider Annie Guthrie, the curator of the Off the Page Poetry symposium where we met, as one such person. She assembled this extraordinary group of artists and poets, who are extending and transforming the definition of what art and poetry is. My most recent experience, the Sydney Biennale in Australia, which is on until Sept 16th, is another instance of a great transformation of the field, achieved by its curators Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster. 


NS: Do you distinguish between art and activism?

CV: Well, this is a tricky question.  All acts are political acts in my view, even breathing. Awareness is the most political act of all. How we see the act of seeing.  Art is political in that sense. But it simultaneously escapes all definitions and takes part in them. This is its beauty. My art has always had a political edge, because it dwells in the space between art and life. It engages the accelerating death and degradation of life.  But in a language that is not overtly graspable. It requires going deeper into the question of what art is. So I guess my answer is yes, art and activism touch and meet each other, and then pull away from each other in ever increasing tension. 


* * *


(the follow discussion between Saterstrom and Vicuña was documented for the University of Arizona Poetry Center's Poetry Off the Page Symposium in May 2012)


NS: In your work there is a communication between the remote past and the current social and political scene.  Can you speak a little about how regard time?

Cecilia Vicuña: I was a young girl, studying architecture in Santiago when I had the sudden realization that "time" as we know it didn't exist. I experienced time as a fluid transforming movement, realizing I could be simultaneously in what we call "past" or "future" at once.  Consciousness moves not just in time, but through it, as through water.  Time became a great mystery to explore, one of many dimensions available to being.


NS:  Your exhibition that just opened in Santiago is an homage to a mummified Incan boy discovered in 1954.  What is it about this child that resonates with you?

CV:  I "met" the child, el Niño del Plomo, when I was 9 years old, when he was "exhibited" at the Museum of Natural History in Santiago. He was also 9 years old.  This meeting was perhaps what opened me to the ancient Andean world as alive, because the child was buried alive, and he looked alive 500 years after he was buried!

Not long after that I discovered the quipo (a pre-Columbian writing system consisting of colored yarn encoded with knots) and began making them. I am a quipu, and I see Andean culture as a living quipu, a web of interconnectedness.


NS: I was just listening to a talk you gave at Naropa University in 1994 and you said Andean Poetics are ‘darkly hidden within themselves’; what have you inherited from Chilean or Andean culture?

CV: I think the main inheritance of Andean/Chilean culture is a multidimensional sense of space and time as a reciprocal exchange.  This is a state of mind, where you know you are participating, shaping what is through your senses and behavior. It is a poetics that generates an ethos, or is it the other way around? They grow each other in perpetual exchange. I experience it as ever-lasting fun, ever-lasting playfulness. 

But this way of being is hidden, because it is suppressed by the dominant colonial culture.  In order to find it, to become aware of its power and beauty, you have to engage in a deep quest, a desire to go deeper into yourself.  It is to be part of this beauty that I return to Chile every year, to work with the people that embody this way of being, usually in remote places, away from the big cities, among the peasants, indigenous peoples and children.


NS:  What was your engagement with Chilean politics when you first started making work?  What is it now?

CV:  I was born to a very political family.  My grandfather Carlos Vicuña Fuentes was an extraordinary writer, historian and politician, a fighter for civil rights, who was often in jail, persecuted for his ideas.  He was a major influence on Pablo Neruda, when he was a young poet developing a sense of social justice.

I grew up hearing these amazing people who gathered at my grandfather's table every Sunday.  Writers, scientists, politicians came to see him, and those legendary lunches went on for 7 or 8 hours.  That was my schooling.  I felt that my art grew out of the limitless potential of the democratic revolution we were involved in.  My position hasn't changed.  

After the military coup of l973, Chile was "globalized", meaning not allowed to choose freely.  And even though the dictatorship was voted out of power in l989, the new so-called "democracy" that emerged after Pinochet is ruled by profit; in other words, the same interests that put the dictatorship in place.



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