by Madeline Murphy Turner
La India Contaminada
Lehmann Maupin | May 19–July 6, 2018
Cecilia Vicuña: La India Contaminada is a much-needed examination of the daring Chilean artist who—although working since the mid-1960s—has only recently gained recognition on the international art circuit. In addition to this exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, her work is currently on view in two separate shows at the Brooklyn Museum: Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu, which centers on a commissioned installation by Vicuña, and the survey Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960 – 1985 (traveling from the Hammer Museum), which includes documentation of Vicuña’s political action Vaso de leche, Bogotá (1979). While each of the exhibitions in Brooklyn gives examples of Vicuña’s varied production methods, La India Contaminada showcases the full diversity of her oeuvre from 1969 to the present, encompassing weaving, installation, painting, and video. A dedicated survey of Vicuña’s work is necessary to address the expansive and evolving nature of her work, and La India Contaminada is a welcome complement to the Brooklyn shows.
More importantly, the Lehmann Maupin exhibition presents the opportunity to re-contextualize her practice and its broader meaning. Occasionally referred to as a conceptual artist, Vicuña’s work is highly engaged with questions of ephemerality, and her ideas are rarely tethered to the object itself. For example, in the mid-1960s she began making the ongoing arte precario series (also called precarios), which were initially small objects created out of found materials held together by rope or string, and placed outdoors to be blown or swept away by the ocean. La India Contaminada includes new precarios which now incorporate man-made materials, and are firmly fixed to the gallery walls. This way of framing Vicuña’s work makes clear the extent to which she thinks about objecthood, while also demonstrating the continuing importance of site-specificity across her work.
Vicuña often explores issues of impermanence through themes of indigeneity and the environment. Much of her visual practice is grounded in narrative and language—both her own poetry and indigenous forms of communication. Each of the eight paintings included in La India Contaminada is accompanied by a text written by the artist for her first exhibition of paintings at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Santiago in 1971. In one of these texts, Vicuña asserts that her paintings go through two stages: when she paints them, they’re alive; and when she finishes them, they die. Significantly, the artist hid many of these paintings for forty years until they were shown in last year’s Documenta 14.
As at Documenta, the paintings are one of the highlights of La India Contaminada. Featuring portraits of figures such as Camilo Torres, Lenin, and Gabriela Mistral, as well as animals, body parts, and landscapes, the paintings are decidedly flat, painted in a style reminiscent of popular art that would be dismissed by many as naïve or folkloric. With indigenous cultures in mind, Vicuña locates knowledge and power in places that diverge from colonial or Western understandings. Leoparda de ojitas (1976) depicts an anthropomorphized snow leopard covered in eyes and proudly showing her genitalia. The accompanying text proposes that the “eye of instinct” is present in all parts of the body, arguing that a richer form of knowledge is located in corporeal areas other than the brain. On view nearby, La Mano Poderosa (1978) features a large hand surrounded by twenty-two smaller ones that form different signs, alluding to systems of language and knowledge other than writing. La Mano Poderosa recalls the work of Chinese-American artist Martin Wong, who began depicting disembodied hands in the 1980s to reference American Sign Language. A central figure in the gay community, Wong, like Vicuña, was interested in presenting types of communication, knowledge, and language that were excluded from mainstream Western culture.
The impulse to address underrepresented and corporeal forms of knowledge is especially prevalent in Vicuña’s ongoing Quipu series, an example of which—Quipu Viscera (2017)—is installed at the beginning of the exhibition. A quipu, which translates as “knot” from Quechua, is an Andean system of recording statistics and history through knotted thread. As a teenager, Vicuña became interested in quipus for their ability to transcend object, the body, and language. As art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson explains in her book Fray: Art + Textile Politics, Vicuña understands the quipu, “as a form of embodied language that takes shape like chords of music or visual poetry, with every colored string, knot, or shell a semantic unit to be read, heard, and interpreted in dialogue with other knotted strings.”
Despite the monumental scale of Quipu Viscera, which is made from dyed, unprocessed wool, the work is highly fragile. Vicuña sometimes installs her quipus outdoors, which enhances their precarity by exposing them to the elements. The indoor installation here, however, minimizes their delicate existence and thus reduces their ephemeral nature. The same is true of the aptly-titled precarios, which, over time, have begun to incorporate different types of objects: while Vicuña used to pick up bones, sticks, feathers, and shells on the beach, she now frequently encounters plastic or other forms of trash.1 The results of this pollution are reflected in the new precarios at Lehmann Maupin, which Vicuña delicately constructs out of both the natural and manmade materials that she finds.
The range of work on view in La India Contaminada insightfully presents Vicuña’s continuing interest in the tension between ephemerality and permanence, with the precarios most explicitly representing how she has developed her practice while keeping such themes in mind. Made from the remnants of human production, the precarios are grounded in their status as objects. Their presentation in a gallery, rather than in nature, emphasizes their permanence, and with it, seems to signify the lasting effects of human damage inflicted upon the environment. This exhibition demonstrates that Vicuña was thinking about our environmental reality long before it became a tangible crisis, revealing the knowledge that can emerge when one examines the world from decolonized or non-Western perspectives.
- Cecilia Vicuña and Edward J. Sullivan, “A Conversation with Cecilia Vicuña and Edward Sullivan” (panel discussion, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, New York, NY, October 9, 2017).
ContributorMadeline Murphy Turner
MADELINE MURPHY TURNER is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.