Cecilia Vicuña’s marvels in About to Happen at the Institute of Contemporary Art
In her review of Cecilia Vicuña exhibition, Andrea Kirsh calls the works -- little cobbled-together objects tacked to the walls or arrayed on a low platform on the floor -- marvels. But these objects are not nothings to throw away but objects with magical shadows and poetic meanings, and their mystery delights.

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Cecilia Vicuña has recently become known more widely after a long and distinguished career as a poet and visual artist, but even those familiar with her work are likely to be surprised by the exhibition currently at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.) through March 31, 2019. The Chilean artist, who has lived and worked in New York City since the 1980s, is best known for pendant, sculptural, textiles that derive their format from quipus – a method of record-making employed by Andean cultures that used series of knots in pieces of twine — examples can be found in anthropological collections. She exhibited a monumental version in documenta14, Kassel, “Quipu Gut” (2017), which hung from ceiling to floor of the very tall interior of documenta Halle.

"Quipu Gut", Cicilia Vicuña, 2017, Documenta 14.
“Quipu Gut”, Cicilia Vicuña, 2017, Documenta 14.

Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen, which was organized by Andrea Andersson and Julia Bryan-Wilson for the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, is billed as a retrospective, but that implies something more linear and iterative that the works on view at the ICA, which consist of one mid-size and another very large installation accompanied by a series of performance videos shown in sequence, and one wall hung with smaller works. This in no way diminishes its impact; it is one of the most marvelous exhibitions I’ve seen – and I mean that description literally.

Scavenged materials form the basis of the two installations. “Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood” (2017), sited at the entrance, resembles a schematic skiff or small boat filled with large pieces of debris – perhaps a Noah’s Ark of all that will remain if our present disregard for the environment continues. But the bulk of the exhibition, in the second, large gallery, consists of her “Precarios,” — more than 110 tiny, three-dimensional works, made between 1966 and 2017, installed across the expanse of a large, low platform and on two adjacent walls behind it. They are the source of wonder.

Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña's "Precarios" at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.
Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña’s “Precarios” at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.

The “Precarios” are constructed from bits and pieces of found stuff – both natural and man-made, most showing signs of wear and few of them inherently beautiful. Components include wire, thread, nylon netting, metal screws, wooden spools, and pieces of shells, wood, feathers, porcupine quills, dessicated flowers and plant foliage, and other easily-overlooked fragments of the everyday. One of my favorites consists of a single, curved piece of yellow, plastic twine, perhaps 8 inches long, resting on a bit of a wooden skewer — the sort used in Japanese restaurants — cantalevered from the wall and lit so that both the twine and mount cast shadows that interact with the objects. All of the wall-hung “Precarios” rest upon projecting pieces of skewer, with monofilament for pendant elements. Depending on the angle of the lighting the works cast simple or elongated shadows. One of them, made from a spiral of wire (ribbon?) the size of my palm, surrounding a jumble of colored thread, casts an elaborate, cage-like shadow to its lower right that is four or five times the height of the work itself.

Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña's "Precarios" at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.
Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña’s “Precarios” at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.

Another visitor, who turned out to be an artist living in Virginia, was as engaged with the works as I was and we spent a long time discussing many of the small constructions and admiring Vicuña’s ability to transform such slight and inconsequential materials into sources of such wonder. I took a large number of photos as a way of studying the “Precarios,” and shared them and my enthusiasm with numerous colleagues at the College Art Association’s annual meeting in New York, shortly after the exhibition opened.

The installation reads like a notebook of quickly-done sketches — so provisional that a strong gust of wind would blow it away. One work, consisting of three needles mounted vertically on a small fragment of wood, is enlivened by a tangle of the green thread that passes through each needle. Another, mounted almost at floor level, is made from a sliver of a stick to which several dried grass heads are fixed; they are so slight that they sway with the movement of the gallery’s air flow.

Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña's "Precarios" at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.
Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña’s “Precarios” at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.

The installation has echos of recent exhibitions which included arrays of found source material from the studios of Ursula von Rydingsvard, Jack Whitten and Rachel Whiteread (reviewed in Artblog on 8/20/18, 9/14/18, 10/22/18), which gave insight into each artist’s thinking. Yet Vicuña’s “Precarios” have an entirely original character. I am inevitably reminded of William Blake’s opening to “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand…”. While they have been read as a response to the political repression of the Pinochet regime, which provoked the artist’s exile, the “Precarios” evoke a broad range of metaphors — of artistic creation, of human responsiveness, of the beauty of the everyday, the value of the fragmentary, damaged and rejected, of man and nature’s variety, the universality of decay, and the ephemerality of life.

Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia until March 31, 2019.


More Photos

Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña's "Precarios" at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.
Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña’s “Precarios” at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.
Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña's "Precarios" at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.
Installation shot, Cecilia Vicuña’s “Precarios” at the ICA. Photo courtesy of Andrea Kirsh.
Tags

andean culture, andrea andersson, assemblage, cecilia vicuña, chile, contemporary arts center new orleans, Documenta 14, fiber art, ica, installation, institute of contemporary art university of pennsylvania, julia bryan-wilson, performance video, quipu, scavenged materials, sculpture, textiles, video

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