On ViewMuseum Of Contemporary Art Tucson
January 27–October 1, 2023
The desert is often thought of as empty, a hot void of an environment, a generalized synonym for absence. In the Sonoran Desert, this misunderstanding erases both the astonishing biodiversity and the vibrant human histories that have intersected the region for millennia. In Sonoran Quipu, Cecilia Vicuña captures these ecological complexities and refocuses the viewer’s perceptions. Though Vicuña has been making soft sculptures and installations inspired by quipu—the ancient Andean device that uses knotted string to both record information and send communication—since the early 1970s, the installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson is a slight departure. Vicuña considers the work that fills the Great Hall of the converted firehouse as part of a new series, “Quipu of Encounters,” which had its most recent iterations at the Guggenheim and the Tate last year. If her earlier quipus explored the ways that fiber can alter architecture or how this unique form can be adapted to document contemporary life, Sonoran Quipu is investigating something more ineffable: relationship, connection, dependency, resilience.
The installation consists of dozens of distinct pieces—descending from the ceiling, emerging from the floor, set against walls—that have been shaped from found or neglected items donated to the museum by local Tucsonans. The materials encompass both the natural and the industrial, some of which are left in their existing state and some of which have been hand-hewn into assemblages. A suspended pinwheel has been fashioned from dried plant stalks and discarded tiki torches. A threaded string of seedpods whose empty interiors have been painted glittery red cascades from the ceiling. The inverted back of a wooden chair merges into a tower of dried saguaro ribs, the structure balancing perfectly upright, as though this hybrid specimen has always grown from desert soil. Rusted bike chains coil snake-like throughout the gallery and the sculptural husks of cacti float around the space.
The artist’s parallel multi-decade trajectory as a poet feels integral to the installation as a whole. In Vicuña’s sparse arrangement, all of these organic and inorganic forms can be seen as glyphs and letters scattered around the blankness of the cavernous room and the supposedly barren desert it represents. Against one brightly lit white wall are fragments from common desert plants that have been sculpted over time by weather—thin twisting tree branches, the hollowed arm of a cholla, a brittle bloom carefully leaning in place—that, in this new context, appear as letters of an unknown alphabet on an open page. In other parts of the gallery, draping curves of scrap metal or hanging palm fronds look fully calligraphic in their arrangement.
After attending the show’s opening in January and checking in on it again in the late spring, I recently went back to take a final look at Sonoran Quipu along with my three-year-old daughter. She was an ideal companion. In her work here, Vicuña’s poetic imagination is operating similarly to that of a child: receptive to the world, fully associative, and working with a deeply playful logic, a language beyond everyday language where humor and seriousness aren’t mutually exclusive. As we walked around, my daughter somehow anticipated and spoke aloud the visual rhymes that I noticed on earlier visits but brushed aside. “Look, a storm is up there!” as she pointed to a billowing upside-down tumbleweed along the ceiling. A few lengthy segments of saguaro rib ended in right angles and she was quick to observe that they were actually feet, not cacti. “That’s a hammock,” she plainly stated as we stood next to five bowing strands of barbed wire held in place by perpendicular sticks. Many of the pieces, like a beautiful coil of clay filled with all manner of seeds, use the same kind of organizational thinking that my daughter employs as she collects sticks, leaves, acorns, and rocks on walks around our neighborhood, then sorting and storing them by shape, texture, size, density.
One of the last pieces that we looked at together consists of an immense agave stalk that once displayed a thick cluster of flowers at the height of its bloom. In the gallery, it has been laid out horizontally, propped up on either end by two crumbling halves of a red plastic bucket. At the opening in January, this stalk was still rigid and the supports held it parallel to the floor like a bridge. Several months later, the middle is now buckling under its own weight and the head has shed an outline of dried tan petals beneath. As we crouched closer, my daughter and I noticed long wisps of cobweb along one side of the piece. This felt like the perfect gesture. The artist borrowed dead plant life and discarded objects from around Tucson, transformed it temporarily into a dynamic museum installation, which then gradually disintegrated over time, and was taken over to be repurposed again through the weavings of a spider.