Cecilia Vicuña (b. 1948 in Santiago, Chile; lives and works in New York and Santiago) integrates practices of poetry, performance, Conceptualism, and textile craft in response to pressing concerns of the modern world, including ecological destruction, human rights, and cultural homogenization. Born and raised in Santiago, she was exiled during the early 1970s after the violent military coup against President Salvador Allende. This sense of impermanence, and a desire to preserve and pay tribute to the indigenous history and culture of Chile, have characterized her work throughout her career.
While living in Chile during the mid-1960s, Vicuña began an ongoing series of small sculptures she calls precarios, spatial poems in which she combines feathers, stone, plastic, wood, wire, shells, cloth, and other human-made detritus. These tiny sculptures are often loosely fastened together with string, so the materials appear to have gathered naturally. These works are defined by their fragility and ephemerality: Vicuña initially composed the precarios along the ocean’s edge, so that they would inevitably be erased by the high tide. Around the same time, Vicuña became interested in ancient quipus—an Andean method of communication and record-keeping involving the knotting of colored strings. Her first spatial weavings date from the early 1970s, and soon after she began to make her own Quipus from unspun wool. These ephemeral, site-specific installations combined the tactile ritual of weaving and spinning with assemblage, poetry, and performance. Vicuña’s surreal figurative paintings of the 1970s are more explicitly personal and political in comparison to her other bodies of work, and were created in direct response to the unrest in Chile and her subsequent exile. These paintings refer to the subtly subversive images made by 16th-century indigenous artists in Latin America after the Spanish conquest, when they were forced to paint angels and saints for the Catholic church. In Vicuña’s paintings, religious icons are replaced by personal, political, and literary figures, commemorated and mythologized by the artist.
Vicuña received her M.F.A. from the National School of Fine Arts, University of Chile in 1971 and continued with postgraduate studies at Slade School of Fine Art, University College London from 1972-1973. Solo exhibitions of her work have been organized at a number of major institutions, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY (2022); Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia (MAMU), Bogotá, Colombia (2022); Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (CA2M), Madrid, Spain (2021); CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco, CA (2020); Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, Mexico (2020); Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, Miami, FL (2019); Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, the Netherlands (2019); Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA (2019); Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA (2019); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH (2019); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (2018); Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY (2018); the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Berkeley, CA (2018); Neubauer Collegium, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL (2018); Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, LA (2017); Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile (2014); Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile (2014); Institute for Women and Art, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ (2009); The Drawing Center, New York, NY (2002); and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Boulder, CO (2002). Group exhibitions and biennials featuring her work include Life Between Buildings, MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY (2022); The Milk of Dreams, 59th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2022); Back to Earth, Serpentine Galleries, London, United Kingdom (2021); Bodies of Water, The 13th Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai, China (2021); Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning, The 13th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, South Korea (2021); And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers?, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria (2021); Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India (2021); The Space Between Classrooms, Swiss Institute Annual Architecture and Design Series, Swiss Institute, New York, NY (2021); Witch hunt, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark (2020); MadBlue, Conde Duque and Casa Encendida Cultural Center, Madrid, Spain (2020); Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY (2019); Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1985, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA (2017), Brooklyn Museum, NY and Pinoteca de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil (2018); Documenta 14, Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany (2017); 18th Sydney Biennale, Australia (2012); DANCE / DRAW, Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston, Boston, MA (2011); ONLINE, Drawing Through the Twentieth Century, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2010); WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA (2007); Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (1997); and INside the VISIBLE, Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston, Boston, MA, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, the Whitechapel Gallery, London, United Kingdom, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, Australia (1996).
Her work is in numerous international private and public collections, including the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Berkeley, CA; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX; Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain de Lorraine, Metz, France; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago, Chile; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), Buenos Aires, Argentina; Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), Lima, Peru; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami, FL; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; and Tate, London, United Kingdom.
Vicuña is the author of 27 volumes of art and poetry published in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Her filmography includes documentaries, animation, and visual poems. Vicuña has received several awards, including the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2022); Premio Velázquez de Artes Plásticas, Madrid, Spain (2019); Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, Santa Monica, CA (2019); Anonymous Was a Woman Award, New York, NY (1999); and The Andy Warhol Foundation Award, New York, NY (1997), and in 2015 was appointed the messenger lecturer at Cornell University.
Artist Portrait by Daniela Aravena