Cecilia Vicuña has been transforming art from the ephemeral for decades, although it was only at the age of seventy that she was invited to the highest precincts of the art world. Born in Chile in 1948, she has spent more than 40 years in New York City, painting, reciting, writing poetry, sculpting artifacts from debris. Yet suddenly her quiet eco-spiritual sensibility made her a belated star. In recent months she has been awarded the Golden Lion for her Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale, she has been chosen to take over the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall next fall with a special commission and has been celebrated with a Guggenheim retrospective.
But that show, alone, does not find a satisfactory answer to the necessary questions: why her, why now? It’s not like she’s coming out of nowhere like a newly born art school graduate. There have been many opportunities, both within the museums and beyond, to appreciate her vision. Nor has she reached an explosive new stage: many of the political paintings on display here date back to the 1970s and cover the same themes that haunted other members of her generation: dictatorship, indigenous rights, love and war, a delightful delight in sensuality and natural worlds. .
He links the birth of his artistic sensibility to a day in January 1966, when, walking on a beach, he suddenly realized that everything big and small in the universe was linked to each other. By taking a piece of wood and throwing it into the sand, she transformed her epiphany into a vocation.
At the heart of that mission was and is the quipu, its version of the knotted fibers associated with the Andean peoples before the 17th century. (Vicuña shows a strong affinity to a number of indigenous cultures that it doesn’t actually belong to.) For them, it was supposedly a recording system, although the information it encoded remains obscure.
Vicuña’s last-day quipus are scarlet and black cascades of spun wool, hanging from the gallery ceiling like dried blood tendrils or entrails, adorned with bits of grass, wire, twins, twigs and plastic. The Guggenheim commissions the new “Stermination Quipu”, which, using the softest materials, aspires to build a barrier against catastrophic environmental and cultural losses.
Weaving, he emphasizes, is etymologically linked to text, technology, construction and soil processing. Historically, it has been a means of creation dominated by women, a way to provide them with shelter, clothing, adornment and narrative. “People who have the knowledge of the meaning of weaving, the knowledge of the origin of life, are all exterminated,” she says in a video interview at the Guggenheim. “So it’s not just the extermination of the species; it is also the species of thought ».
This kind of rhetoric could, if taken literally, answer the questions I posed at the beginning. Why her? Because she holds the key to humanity’s redemption. What time? As carbon emissions are spewing and biodiversity is plummeting, so it’s best to get a move on. “It is up to us to decide what kind of death we want to leave for the next generations. A death that brings new generations? Or a death where it all ended? “She continues in the video.” And that decision has to be made right away. “
I just can’t detect the connection between “Stermination Quipu” and its universal ambitions or see it as the “umbilical cords of the cosmos”, as a mural text describes the work. Perhaps this is why the exhibition, organized by Pablo León de la Barra and Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, highlights his most salable, durable and identifiable paintings. Vicuña once said, “We are made of scraps and we will be thrown away”, but these bright and vivid images were built to last. In the first spans of the show, you can practically feel the intertwined threads of Motown, blues, bebop and psychedelic rock that accompanied Vicuña’s youth.
“Amados” (My Loved Ones), from 1969, is a group portrait of the usual hippiedom prophets, including William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane. And at the center of this pantheon is Cecilia herself, hugging her bearded boyfriend and immersing herself in the wisdom of the ages. In the 1971 Autobiografía she portrays herself as a child, a seven-year-old girl who refuses to be indoctrinated by the dominant ideology, falling in love with her at the age of 15, discovering passionate spiritual affinities with nature and an almost adoring sense of self.
These early paintings have an exuberant charm, a trembling attention to the angry world around her – or at least her celebrities – combined with a stubborn belief that everything will work out. They combine a slightly frenetic urban sensibility with outsider folksism that Vicuña – daughter of a left-middle-class family in Santiago and a student at both the University of Chile’s art school and London’s Slade School of Fine Art – he must have acquired through deliberate applications of naivety.
Of all her various muses, Janis Joplin has haunted Vicuña’s imagination the hardest, popping up as an alter ego. In “Janis Joe” (1971) the singer (by now already deceased) appears, replicating herself, at the center of an openly religious canvas. A fantastic city floats in the distance, with cloisters and fountains in a Renaissance panel. It is surrounded by visions of peace, love and liberation. But Vicuña once again manages to redirect some of her reverence to herself. There are more Cecilia than Janises: we see her flying naked over a garden, repopulating Eden with her boyfriend Adam, dancing on the edge of an abyss, experiencing her first menstrual cycle and listening to jazz.
But of course the party is over. Vicuña was living in London in 1973 when the right-wing Chilean general Augusto Pinochet launched a military coup that killed the socialist president Salvador Allende and ushered in a period of brutal oppression. He remained in exile, first in England, then in Colombia and finally in New York.
You can see her pivotal mood in a self-portrait titled “La Vicuña”, which shows her hugging the fine wool-leaping beast in the Andes that is her namesake and wearing only a painted scarf. The part that flutters behind her is the shining past, filled with lovemaking, singing and marching against a bright pink background. She is still filling the black and white half, a panoply of despots, soldiers and guns.
The rest of the show – the part that covers her maturity – never recovers the energy, joy and innocent narcissism of those early years. The depth that his art acquires in return seems scarce. She has created a lot of ephemeral things: the talismans assembled from salvaged sticks and feathers that she calls “precarios” and the “basuritas” (pieces of garbage), made from plastic tabs and other manufacturing scraps. The Guggenheim mostly ignores them and fruitlessly dwells on “palabrarmas,” banners of visual puns that don’t translate well for a non-Spanish-speaking audience.
In the end, perplexity permeates the spectacle, adrift among all the knotted raw wool threads. While Vicuña poses urgent cosmic questions, the retrospective generates a more narrow and mean one: do all these seemingly independent institutions pour into the same name because they have discovered something profound or because the culture has developed a sudden need for an oracular essay?
Until September 5th guggenheim.org
To follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out our latest stories first