liminal: relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition
Lavando un hilo enredado. (Washing a tangled-up thread.)
Cecilia Vicuña’s practice exists within a sensory threshold, situated between what is and what is not. It lives in the space of the broken, in the ruptures where the possible finds forms of release and reintegration. Her poetic action is a disembodied ritual and the ritual is an opening, a slit, an incision within perceptions. An erotics unfolds in this space of vulnerability and, like her red “Quipus,” an inner language is seduced by gravity and other occult forces, finding expressions to sustain an imagination that is both individual and collective. Metaphors adhere to reality or, rather, they create one. We enter a liminal space where the spiritual and the political become not only a single field, but a tactic, a spell, an attitude.
In February 2020, right before COVID-19 hit in Mexico City, Cecilia Vicuña’s exhibition Veroír el fracaso iluminado (Seehearing the Enlightened Failure) inaugurated at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) located inside the campus of UNAM, Mexico’s National Autonomous University. Curated by the Peruvian writer and researcher Miguel A. López after five years of collaborating closely with the artist, the retrospective encompasses a substantial body of work, including early paintings and films, large-scale installations, textiles, collages, archival footage, and other forms of poetry.
Vicuña’s work merges activism, ritual, and poetry. As a tireless fighter for human rights and ecology, and as a feminist activist, Vicuña’s ecstatic sense of urgency reconciles these issues with an ancestral, indigenous cosmovision to intra-act with the world. “Her multidimensional poems are written in space,” says López, “a poetic principle traverses her work.” The installation Quipu Menstrual (2006), which has had many iterations in different museums across the world, creates an atmosphere of connection to and awareness of one’s body. The viewer navigates the 28 strings of red sheep wool hanging from the ceiling, their elusive weight becoming columns of gravity in dialogue with one another. Situated along a corridor where natural light enters the space through the large-scale glass windows of MUAC, the piece transforms the corridor into a birth-passage, an interstate between two rooms. The 28 red strings are perhaps symbolic of the lunar calendar and its synchronicity with the menstrual cycle; this unison is revealed through a micro and macro-cosmic perception, a shared cyclic temporality. The poet says, “This is the energy of the cosmos, pure potential.”
Quipu (or khipu) means knot in Quechua. It is an ancient form of writing or notation, a mnemonic device, a form of remembering. This Andean system was used to preserve commercial, social and political statistics, to tell stories and poems, as well as to register rights or responsibilities within the community. Every knot is a mark, resembling a musical score with a specific import and interval, used for counting and writing. But the system of the quipu simultaneously reminds us that it is also the thread that, dualistically, connects a material reality with an immaterial language. Vicuña has explored and voiced her own interpretations of our poetic condition through the thread of the quipu and its energetic memory.
Quipu de Lava at Espacio Escultórico
El volcán sabrá recordarte lo que olvidas y te lanzará una flor a la memoria y entonces verás pasar ante ti todo el universo como el salvaje parado en la montaña mira pasar el huracán o el río lleno de árboles desgajados.
—Vicente Huidobro, Temblor de Cielo (1942)
(The volcano will make you remember what you forget and will throw a flower to your memory, and so you will see the whole universe passing in front of you like the savage standing on the mountain sees the hurricane or the river full of detached trees.)
A day before the opening of Vicuña’s exhibition, a performance took place in collaboration with 60 participants from Mexico City who had previously signed up through MUAC’s open call. Just a few meters away from the MUAC, Vicuña’s red quipus were spread throughout the legendary Espacio Escultórico, one of the most important public artworks in Latin America. This large-scale circular structure, composed of 64 triangular prisms over a plain of petrified lava and tezontle (red volcanic rock), is a monumental work created by Manuel Felguérez, Helen Escobedo, Mathias Goertiz among other Mexican artists, sculptors and architects. The desire of the artists was to merge ecology and art, creating an ambitious yet intimate geological experience in order to reproduce a cosmic image of an indigenous world. Since its opening in 1979, the Espacio Escultórico has been a special place, a meeting point for students, artists and visitors. On a windy day where the polluted clouds aren’t so dense, one can see the valley of Mexico, with the majestic volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl right in front.
The ceremony began in the morning when collaborators gathered with Vicuña below a tree next to the public artwork. We were alone, no audience, no media—just us. She asked if we could sit,hold hands, and meditate before the ritual to connect with the space’s geological consciousness, the pulse of volcanic rocks. She chanted for a few minutes in a low voice; we listened. El hueco, el hueco, the cavity, the sound within the cavity, word-airs travelled, touching the tezontle, opening a kind of interzone. Then she shared a poem she had written the night before in support of the 2019 Chilean social outbreak (el estallido social), which, to use a metaphor I kept in mind during this time, was still active like the volcano in front of us. The “Chilean awakening” (El Despertar Chileno), has been the most significant political demonstration of social unrest since the 1973 Chilean coup d'état. Vicuña says, “This estallido (outbreak) is an urgent call to change and restore the moral compass that was lost during the Military Coup, and the false democracy that followed. It is an explosion of truth and life facing the death instinct and lies that have dominated us.”
Vicuña had been very involved in these protests, and her political vision reverberates among young people. During the estallido, protesters wrote fragments from her old series of poems PALABRArmas in the streets. Vicuña wrote these poems in response to the military coup of 1973: “¿Cómo dejar de ser miserable? Que mi ser hable” (How can one stop being miserable? When my being speaks); and another one: “We are the visible pulse of the possible!”
Quipu de Lava, the performance-ritual we were about to carry out, had many missions, she explained. If we could fully connect with the wisdom of this space from the perspective of deep time, with the history of everything that happened here, from the formation of lava to what Mexico City was before the Conquest, with its intrinsic indigenous knowledge, we would empower and nourish the social movement in Chile. “The precarious refers to the awareness that we’re participating with other consciousnesses,” says Vicuña. In this sense, this precarious, ephemeral, yet striking gesture was embodying our interconnective experience, going beyond a politics of location, and using imagination and devotion as mediums to engage in weaving the subtle thread of interactive consciousness. The performance was also an offering to the volcanos, to their mythological and scientific history from a syncretic perspective, a reverence to these mountains that are beings. She envisioned her quipus tracing a red line right in the middle of the Iztacchíuatl and Popocatépetl as the energetic relation of menstrual blood and lava, visualizing our shared elemental potency.
We entered the Espacio Escultórico and slowly unraveled the quipus, creating a line of people holding the thread. Some lay down, some sat, some stood. Right in the middle of this vast, ancient volcanic terrain, Vicuña and a group of musicians created a little circle. There were speakers across the space and a large audience gathered around the triangular prisms, watching, listening, seeinghearing. The poetic play of words and conceptual elements, Seehearing the Enlightened Failure, is actually what her work does, suggesting a liminality towards an erotics: a form of poetics traversed by an ecstatic eroticism that exists beyond the body. Vacuum is illuminated through detachment, and failure becomes possibility, a space where the vulnerable is an apparatus charged with agency.
During the performance there was this sense of poetic urgency: Vicuña’s voice travelled through the air and speakers, and like an amplified secret, it resembled a cloud that would soon disappear and disperse, hovering and fusing with an unrelenting yet fragile mystery. A whispering protest that reverberated with a ferocious presence, emptying one’s being to reconnect with all the phenomena that we are and that surrounds us. Vicuña’s performance-rituals are an act of emptying, of finding vacuum in order to become otherness. In this detachment we can see-hear-feel, experiencing a breakthrough, an act of communion and dissipation. This is a radical political act because one is completely open to becoming, again and again, the continuation of otherness. Vicuña says, “A work of art that is about joy is never apolitical, because it makes you feel the urgency of the present, the urgency of being alive, which is the urgency of the revolution.”
Vicuña’s ritual-metaphors are the threads we leave between actions; the threads themselves are the embodied myths within time and places, tools of immaterial remains ready to be woven again. Devices to engage with our awareness of continuity and persistence as evolutionary energy.