Cecilia Vicuña is a multidisciplinary Chilean artist who describes her practice as dwelling in the not yet. Vicuña forms and disentangles meaning with poetry, oral performances, filmmaking, criticism and activism. Throughout the dimensions of her work since the 1960s, Vicuña has continuously engaged in poetics and what she terms as ‘ancient spiritual technologies’ to generate liminal spaces with the hope of inciting change and social resistance.
Vicuña first visited Australia as an artist for the 2012 Sydney Biennale. She returned to Australia in 2016 to partake in Liquid Architecture’s ‘Why Listen to Animals’, an experimental series offering aural reconsiderations of John Berger’s 1980 seminal essay ‘Why Look at Animals’. During her time in Melbourne, Vicuña also presented her versioning of a lecture entitled ‘The Artist as … Poet’ at the Bella Union in Carlton on October 6, 2016. Vicuña’s lecture was a part of the series The Artist As … co-presented by the Institute of Modern Art Brisbane and Curatorial Practice at Monash Art Design and Architecture.
To experience one of Vicuña’s oral performances is to both feel and hear the chasms of all your previous understandings gently opening as she threads physical gestures, singing, chants and vocalisations of multiple languages into a space; a poem. As Rosa Alcalá explains in her introduction of Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña:
Although Vicuna is focused on oral performance, hers is no romantic idea of a pristine orality. It is one fully cognizant of the intervention of print, and is concerned mainly with the interplay between poetic texts and the vocalization and improvisation of those texts.
The morning after Vicuña’s performance she and I discussed her approaches to poetry, specifically with regards to Latin American and oral traditions, the social responses poetry may provoke and the influence that archival processes have on informing cultural memories and understandings. This transcript is a marking of our exchanges, as Vicuña states ‘to respond is to offer again’.
Autumn Royal: During your performance of ‘The Artist as … Poet’ you read Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem ‘We are Going’. The duality of the title and last line, ‘we are going’, expresses both the loss of Aboriginal people but also a resistance against colonisation. The line ‘we are going’ reminded me of your philosophy to ‘dwell in the not yet’. How did you encounter that poem?
Cecilia Vicuña: Just the day before my partner, the poet James O’Hern, sent it to me from New York. He couldn’t come with me on this journey so he’s been travelling with me in spirit. He’s been reading Aboriginal poetry – including Indigenous Australian poetry – and has also been to Australia and visited the ancient art of the caves of the communities many times, so he’s familiar with the universe of Aboriginal poetics. It was such a lovely gift to receive that poem because it’s true. My reading of the line ‘we are going’ is that it doesn’t just refer to the Indigenous people of Australia, it also refers to the whole of humanity. The Indigenous Australians have lived there for 70,000 years with extraordinary wisdom and resilience, creating some of the most amazing art in the world in the process. If they’re erased, if they’re eliminated, it’s a sign of our own self-destruction and so the poem is very prophetic in that it says that we are nature. Every living thing is nature. I mean, why are we on this suicidal move, and why is it that people refuse to see what we are doing to the environment even though we all feel it? That is the real question for our times. Why are we indifferent to our own death?
AR: Do you think Noonuccal’s poem spoke to you so strongly because of the way you approach your own work because and how it ends on a note of continuation, of what is yet to happen?
CV: If you read it as a warning, the warning includes the idea that we can wake up if we wish. If we connect to that terrible pain then there is a chance, and I believe that there is still a chance. But we don’t have a lot of time. We have this particular decade to take responsibility, and if we don’t do it now it’s going to be too late. It’s already happening, destruction has already sped up intensely in every place and so we say ‘look: what’s going on with the melting of ice, with the rising of the oceans?’ and that loop has already been set in motion. We don’t know what it’s going to be like in five years, in ten years. Originally, people were claiming that these environmental disasters were going to be in 100 years, but we know now that that’s not the case. It’s already happening for a lot of people, it’s not a matter of prophecy any more.
AR: Do you think that a form of denial about environmental destruction is by believing that a lot of the warnings and messages are treated as just a prophecy rather than a reality?
CV: Absolutely. The ways of pushing away a reality are infinite, and they are all embedded in a worldview which has been studied by many people. There is a Cuban poet that I admire and mentioned a few times last night, his name is José Lezama Lima. He says that it is the power of the image that creates the foundation of history. So history responds to an image, an image, in this case, means a worldview. If people are brought up in the Christian-western idea that nature is to be controlled and dominated, then to destroy it is meaningless. You see, it’s all dependant on what most people believe: that science will come up with a solution. That is another form of denial. Science is not oriented towards looking for a solution, science is oriented towards profit. That is the condition of economy. If scientists don’t work for profit, they don’t have money for research, so the research is not oriented towards the survival of humanity. The desire not to see is driving this denial.
AR: Is this one of the reasons why you’ve pursued poetry and art? By making works and giving performances that can’t be contained and the awareness of how art and poetry can communicate certain ideas about what is possible?
CV: Yes, I began art and poetry as a very young girl, and my family always made fun of me. They said ‘Cecilia was born with a little pencil in her hand’, or my brothers would say ‘Cecilia is a factory of madness’ because I was constantly creating this or that form which is formless at the same time. Therefore, my art sort of seeps under, even though it has been censored and marginalised for so many decades – 40 years or so. I would say, somehow, my work finds a way to percolate, to go under and surface in another place. That’s not my doing, it’s the energy of what’s inside the poems, inside the images; they have a life, a life that connects it to other life forms.
AR: I appreciate the way you describe your work, Cloud-Net, during your performance last night. It speaks to the energy that you were just referring to. I haven’t seen a physical copy of Cloud-Net – only the images and I’ve listened to your references to it – but I feel like I’ve already encountered it in a sense. One of the things I admire about your work is that you speak philosophically about things in a way that’s inclusive and that doesn’t alienate.
CV: The most powerful images are always elemental images, like a cloud-basket. That is something that most people can picture. You’re lying on the ground and you’re looking up right now under the clouds and we can see these things.
AR: I had a friend who recently died, and our mutual friend who flew over from Perth to Melbourne for the funeral began to speak elegiacally with metaphor — as she’d not done before — and expressed to me that she saw our friend’s name in every cloud during her flight over. She wouldn’t feel as if she was being ‘poetic’ for saying such things, and yet everyone can be poetic. Do you think that if we focused more on oral poetry instead of written poetry then it would allow for a greater value in terms of what poetry can do?
CV: Absolutely. The position of poetry in oral cultures is of tremendous power and reach. In fact, the oral poets say this plainly: the reach of an oral poem is infinite because it can be sensed, it can be heard, it can be told, it’s alive and moving and changing. We have proof: some of the greatest poems of humanity were transmitted orally for hundreds of years before they were written. This is true of many cultures. It is true of the Homeric poems, true of the Nordic sagas and true of the Mayan tradition. Instead of the written tradition where you need to read a book and the reach is already limited, it makes sense that the orality is wide open. For example, I did a movie called What is Poetry to You? in an oral culture of Bogotá, Colombia, and everybody – the beggars, the children, the police, everybody – had this extraordinary discourses on poetry. When I show the film in places like the U S and Europe people think that I must have scripted it because … how could average people on the street be so smart and have all these complex thoughts? But that is what happens with oral cultures, everybody is tremendously intelligent.
AR: I feel that one of the most disappointing things about Western culture is that if you haven’t been educated in a certain mould or if you aren’t confident in reading, some people feel like they can’t understand poetry and so they don’t even open a book.
CV: But it’s not the fault of the poetry or of the books, it’s the outlook. They have been educated to think that they are ignorant. Because Western education is about teaching that knowledge belongs to an elite. Ttherefore, you either join through a difficult long struggle or you are devoid of any value. So that is the teaching of this culture, there’s something ingrained in the system and worldview, which we know not to be true. I have done many educational projects with Indigenous peoples and that is one of my principles: that you don’t teach what people ‘ought to know’. On the contrary, you let them discover their own wisdom, they’re own insight, they’re own realisations – those which are infinite once they relax into seeing their own self, their own being. It’s a human thing, everybody has this power and this gift. It’s not something special.
AR: An article by Steve Dickison, ‘For Mnemosyne’, recently published in Open Space, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s online publication, refers to the necessity of archiving as a means to preserve and also disrupt collective culture memory. The article begins with a quote from a talk you gave at the Poetry Centre in February 2012: ‘What is that knowing that is available to us? […] We are cut off from it because we are cut off, only’. This statement creates an echo, and in order to continue that echo, can you please explain a little more bit about what you mean about ourselves cutting ourselves off?
CV: If you think that you don’t know, you don’t know. But if you think that you may know, if you think that it’s perfectly possible that you have a knowing, then you can find it. So it’s a matter of opening. It’s a matter of releasing the structures that have been imposed upon you, realising that every form of education is an imposition that’s coming from outside your being. I think the liberating force of art and poetry is that it releases you from that, and it puts you in the place of discovering, of exploring, of acknowledging that you have senses, that you have awareness, that you perceive and are paying attention to the precise form of those perceptions. That’s the joy of the poet, the joy of the artist, to focus completely, zero in on those perceptions and see the universe expanding out of ‘a grain of sand’, as William Blake said. Everything has infinite possibilities of knowledge and that’s what it means to be human. We have been brought up to believe that the machine knows better than we do. Everybody believes that now. That’s preposterous! Machines only know how to do operations, they can’t imagine, they can’t imagine the unimagined, they can’t travel like we can to the end of the galaxies just by thinking about it. So, why are we so willing to renounce our agency as creators? That is what is troubling.
AR: In the article, Dickison frames the events of the Pinochet military coup – the overthrow of the Chilean Allende government – as an example to demonstrate the importance of documenting artistic responses to such socio-political changes. How do you see the act of archiving literary and artistic pursuits as a means of confrontation to such atrocities?
CV: We are memory; the memory of our cells is transmitted to our new generations. The cover up of the atrocities inflicted or endured by our ancestors or immediate families engenders indifference and insensibility in next generations, and they somehow carry within themselves an unacknowledged rage that, in turn, becomes a new source of violence. So the cycle of pain an horror is recreated. Only by becoming collectively aware of the pain we inflict on each other is there a chance for change, for a new moral code to prevent it. We need to archive not just art and literary works – often the record of the unacknowledged behaviour we have witnessed, or felt within – but also it effects on others. The social context makes change possible.
AR: Because your work was ignored earlier on, how do you feel about it being more valued and with more attention being focused on its archiving?
CV: I’ve published 25 books in my life, but 90% of my work isn’t published. These books represent only a small part of what I have done and so how do I feel? Well, there’s sadness, there’s a sense of loss. For example, even just this morning, there’s going to be an exhibition opening next week Paisaje: politico / poético (Landscape: Politics / Poetics) at Ch.ACO 2016, Chile’s annual contemporary art fair, in Santiago that includes a work of mine. They asked me to write a little text that goes with the work, and in this text I speak of the mother of the work that I will be showing and the mother of this work is a work that I did in 1974. It is a painting of two women who have become widows at the age of 24. These are my girlfriends – that’s when the military coup happened in Chile, I was 24 – and many of my friends immediately became widows from the persecutions. In this painting one girl-widow is consoling the other girl-widow. I described this in the text and the gallery immediately wrote to me and asked if they could show the work I was referring to. I said no, because I destroyed it. Why did I destroy it? On one hand, because it was so painful to watch this painting I had created, and on the other, it was destroyed because my work was so undervalued and nobody paid any attention. Nobody thought that what I was doing had any significance, so what would I do with all of these hundreds of paintings? I could give them to friends who might throw them in the garbage; even I would destroy them. If you have no meaning for others, you don’t have meaning for yourself.
AR: I guess this relates to the empowerment of your precarios. You create these artworks distinctively for their social and ecological engagement, yet the inevitable decay of your precarious allows a resistance to the commodification of art because they’re completed by the elements.
CV: That has been the stronger and most fertile ground for my work precisely because it incorporated its own dissolution from the start, from the very first day. I understood that dissolution was a form of regenerating the life force of the sea, because my work began at the edge of the sea. I began to do these works in 1966 at a place called Concón, an ancient, sacred place with 10,000 years of culture already destroyed by the construction of an oil refinery built on top of a cemetery of our ancestors. Even in the ’60s, the ecological disasters had begun, and I think by focusing on dissolution and regeneration of the lifeforce, I was instinctively responding to that pain, the pain of the ocean, the pain of the sand. I walked on this beach as a kid and the sole of my feet would get black from oil, everything was already blackened. That was 50 years ago. We have lived with this denial and destruction for 50 years, and when you think of the damage that those 50 years have done, if there’s a future for humanity, those 50 years are going to be known as one of the most criminal.
AR: I wanted to know about your ‘Quasars’. In Rosa Alcalá’s documentation of your work, Spit Temple, there is an archive of your poetry and performances that present the ideas about light and sound and as forces even though they are quasi forms. Did you name your performances ‘Quasars’ because of the celestial associations?
CV: Yes, of course. The quasar is the most powerful source of energy in the cosmos as far as we know and they are ‘not yet’, they are quasi. I think we are the same. If you tried to describe what my performances are like you would have a lot of trouble. If you were to try and document it, it’s never like being there, because when you are there it’s the total experience of every feeling. The audience becomes completely alive, they cease to be passive. I begin from the floor, from the ground up – in the way like the swell could come up in a geyser, and I am compelled to do it by poetry itself. It’s like poetry is emerging at that very moment, and that is what we are all experiencing in that moment, everybody can sense it. And what I’m reading, I’m not really reading. I read partially, I read one word or the other, but there are many other things that emerge in that moment of creation.