Episode 35: Cecilia Vicuña's Disappeared Quipu (2018)
VOICE 1: A forest of cloth, coming from the ceiling, there are columns of white, fluffy fabric that are in knots in some places. And projected onto this fabric is colors that are slowly moving downwards, the colors are red and yellow and white. The sounds are ethereal, and they sound like whispers. And it almost sounds like they’re in my head.
VOICE 2: The scale is huge –
VOICE 3: It is! Very big.
VOICE 2: Like, I’m feeling smaller, because the scale is so big, of these huge knots.
VOICE 4: They don’t look like pieces of cloth, because of the enormity of the knots, and a couple of knots on each of the leg – they’re almost like legs, giant legs, yeah.
VOICE 3: The closer you get, the fluffier it looks, right?
VOICE 2: Yeah.
VOICE 3: Yeah, it’s like… cottony.
VOICE 2: As if, if we kept getting closer, it’s almost like a spider wove it.
VOICE 3: It looks like dog toys.
TAMAR: You are not the first person who’s said that.
VOICE 3: I’m sure I’m not.
VOICE 5: It’s very alluring, I kind of want to go in. I want to see what’s at the center.
VOICE 6: I’d feel like I was in a grouping of trees, old historic trees, and looking up.
VOICE 5: Yeah. It would be very mystical. I definitely want to touch them. [laughs]
VOICE 6: Yeah, they’re very physical.
VOICE 5: They do look like muscle fibers. And I wanna know what the knots mean! You know, what are the stories that are being told here?
VOICE 7: The way the projection flows down the knots almost makes the knots feel as though they’re speaking?
VOICE 8: It’s like a forest of sound, and memories. That’s what it reminds me of. Like, memories, and, like, the way it’s moving, like your thoughts are, like, fluid, and they keep, they keep changing, and changing into something else, and, like, moving, and emotions.
VOICE 7: It reminds me of the symbol of infinity, so it kind of is, like, reminding me of the infiniteness of these stories. There’s also infinite possibilities as to what they could mean, because we don’t know what they are yet. And even the way that the knots are, like, when you look into it, it seems as if they’re endless. That’s what I got from it.
VOICE 7: Like, all of your senses are being occupied at once, you know, you have this visual pattern that’s flowing down the knots themselves, and then you do have the knots, which are magnificent in their own right, and then you have her speaking and singing, and it… the combination of all three for me feel as if the knots can almost move, and they’re like mouths talking. And they’re telling their story in a way.
I was once asked, in one of those rhetorical, personality-assessing icebreakers, if, given the choice, I would rather be able to speak conversationally in every language or be able to talk to animals. To me, it was such a no-brainer that it didn’t even strike me as much of a conversation-starter. Every language, obviously. I mean, first of all, I feel like the novelty of actually knowing what’s going on in my cat’s head – basically just tuna and napping – would wear off pretty quickly. But secondly, and more importantly, I just love languages, and I really love conversation. I can’t even imagine how glorious it would be to walk off a plane and feel the flow of those words gliding off my tongue, to instantly understand what I was reading, the way your brain just does in that calm, unconscious state of understanding – instead of the seized-up, squinting locked box that my brain usually becomes when I go to another country. Because the reality is, I’m a pretty crappy linguist, and it’s always been a bummer. When you’re not great at languages, your resting state is a Teflon pan under an open faucet. The words flow over you, above you, around you, and your ear simply adapts to hearing those sounds, and absorbing nothing.
We’ve talked before about what happens when language itself has no meaning, way back in episode 17. We talked about how it simply becomes sound, a series of Dada-esque utterances, the kinds of nonsense that Marcel Duchamp would have delighted in. But language that is emptied of its meaning isn’t the same as language that sits untranslated, in a locked box, its meaning there, but unreachable. That’s something else, something much more painful. And it invites different questions. What happens to language that is robbed of its meaning? Where does the meaning go? What does it mean for the ability to communicate, to connect, to remember? And if foreign invaders come and colonize your land and rewrite your culture and deliberately destroy the translation, how do you still make a sound?
These are the fundamental questions of this installation, Disappeared Quipu, and by its Chilean artist and poet, Cecilia Vicuña. But it’s understandable if you don’t think to ask them when you walk into the gallery. At first glance, it’s a bizarre scene. The darkened room houses the massive quipu, a series of thick, raw wool knots that hang from the ceiling like a forest of biomorphic trees, lit up like a disco with projections of colorful Andean cloth. To walk around the installation is to be in a state of continual re-centering: the quipu feels just a little too big for the space, and so you find yourself skirting around it, not sure if you can trust your own depth perception. The knotted raw wool hangs heavily, like a rope ladder of bedsheets tossed outside a fairy tale tower window, pooling on the floor. From a distance, the wool looks like sun-bleached bones, yet it’s actually malleable, soft, and oddly welcoming closer up. Even though you’re restricted from actually walking into them, it seems like it would be cozy in the center. And as you walk around them, you’re hearing this recording: something you didn’t originally notice, which then becomes something you can’t ignore. It’s otherworldly and eerie – whispers, chants, scraps of indecipherable poetry and song, swelling up in startling moments and then dying back down again. These sounds are Vicuña herself, over multiple tracks, pulling you out of yourself and into the space of the quipu: this huge, tactile, material thing, alive with projections and voices, a “multisensory memorial,” in her words. And suddenly you realize that even if you don’t entirely understand what you’re looking at, and certainly not what you’re hearing, that you’re in the presence of a powerful, tactile metaphor for language, memory, culture, awareness – all of which has been lost. And you are experiencing that metaphor, that presence of absence, even if you don’t understand what exactly is absent. But you are aware that you are witnessing the untranslated language, the locked box.
And this juxtaposition of material and metaphor is at the core of Vicuña’s art. Like so much of what she creates, Disappeared Quipu exists simultaneously in the realm of the physical and the metaphysical. Between the concrete historical resonance of her craft, and eloquent, lyrical metaphors of her poetry. Between, in her words, “a tactile and an imaginary place.” A place where an enormous installation of thick raw wool can also draw our awareness not only to a disappeared society, but to the nature of absence itself. And this juxtaposition then becomes the foundation upon which she goes to work, reclaiming her own ancestral traditions and her own lived cultural and aesthetic history, with the aim of ultimately transforming these pieces of herself outward, into tools of awareness, resistance, and social change.
And so it stands to reason that the more you know about Cecilia Vicuña, the better you’ll understand her art. She was born in Santiago in 1948, and studied art at the University of Chile before being exiled to London after Pinochet’s coup d’etat in 1973. This was when she first became an activist, working to help identify the victims of politically-motivated kidnappings and murders that become routine during 20th century Latin American dictatorships. She then moved to New York in 1980, where she lives and works to this day. And, like I said, what makes her work so rich is that, at any given moment, we experience the confluence of her own lived history and the ancestral history of Andean folk art. She is a powerful advocate for the disappeared, both whom she saw disappear in her own lifetime, and from her having been born into a deep history of erasure as an indigenous Quechua Chilean. And this foot in both histories is what makes her work so inextricable to her very identity, right down to the word, Vicuña, which translates an Andean camel known for its wool. And it’s not just a charming coincidence that this should be her name – it actually speaks to the role that fiber and textiles play in Andean culture, and in the lives of the Incan peoples that comprised it. But we’ll come back to this.
But learning more about Vicuña can also present its own set of challenges. Her work presents a bit of a pickle for art history’s love of tidy categorization – and when your art is so deeply a reflection of yourself, it’s going to contain multitudes. To that end, the reason why you might not have heard of Cecilia Vicuña before this is largely a reflection of her eclecticism. Call her a fiber artist, a land artist, a Chilean folk artist, an environmentalist, a historian, a feminist, an activist, and a poet, and she’ll respond. Yet no single one of those identities are sufficient without the others. Because each one is gently woven together through the threads of her words, tying together the fundamental concepts of memory, language, and awareness – what, to her, is most delicate, most precious, and most precarious in the human experience. First, memory, that shapeshifter, which is so temperamental even as we live, and which we take with us when we die; secondly, language, which is how we make meaning, which acts as the delivery system of memory from generation to generation, and which is so easily crushed under the boot of a colonizer; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, awareness.
Have you ever really stopped and tried to define awareness? It’s so obvious and yet so startling, like taking a moment to focus on the existence of your own tongue. And in Vicuña’s poetry, awareness is this awake, active, unifying force that brings together memory and language, language and meaning. Awareness tells us who we are in relation to others, in relations to our shared histories, in relation to our own personal histories. It tells us what we’ve acquired, and what we’ve lost. “I believe what changes the world is our awareness,” Vicuña writes, “and I consider awareness to be the main art of human beings.” And of course, awareness is a deeply individual thing. It requires our subjective effort, our conscious decision to be open, rather than closed; connected, rather than alone. Awareness is, after all, the primary connection, the primary acknowledgement, between ourselves and each other, and the world we live in, and on.
And I should add that this final point, awareness of the world we live on, is the cornerstone of Vicuña’s concerns as an environmentalist. This idea that we are aware of the earth, and that the earth is aware of our presence, and that we are aware of its awareness. And it’s the breakdown of this ongoing awareness exchange, she believes, that is responsible for the current environment crisis we now find ourselves in. It is the direct result of our lack of awareness. And I mention this specific facet of her art because she herself considers it foundational to all of her art. When Vicuña tells the origin story of her life as an artist, she recalls being a little girl in Chile, playing on the beach, and feeling the grease of the oil that was blackening her hands and feet. She writes, “one day I felt the wind encircle my waist like a snake; I turned and realized the sea, the sun and the wind were aware. Undone by living awareness I melted to the ground. I picked up a stick and planted it in the sand.” And she evokes this story in her most recent large-scale, outdoor exhibit, where she collected pieces of trash that washed up on the beach and assembled tiny sculptures she called “los precarious,” translated as the precarious, the fragile: feathers, shells, bones, beads, held together with string and wire, presented as offerings back to the sea. These are delicate works, meant to be washed away. As she writes in the catalog, “we are made of throwaways and we will be thrown away.”
And all of this conceptual and historical background brings us back to the object at hand. Because these concepts – memory, language, and awareness – are themselves the threads are woven together to form this massive quipu. And like the precarios, it too is an ephemeral memorial to what has been lost, to what history has treated as a throwaway. Except now, it’s an entire people.
So what is a quipu? The word itself is translated as a “talking knot” – it’s a knotted record-keeping device that was used throughout the Incan empire and was crucial for communication in a society that had no written language. The Incan empire stretched over 3000 miles, from present-day Ecuador to central Chile, so you can imagine the value of a codified means of record-keeping across that kind of distance. And there were two kinds of quipus: one that was meant to be administrative and statistical, tracking taxes, inventories, census data, while the other was much more narrative, intending to preserve stories and history, poems and songs. These narrative quipus told stories of rulers and military victories and inexplicable cosmological events, “giving life to these valleys,” as Vicuña writes, “connecting communities to the whole, creating a vision of the commons as a living being, a quipu including all.” And historians have been able to crack the code of the first one – the direction that the knots were tied in, the number of knots per string, are understood, mostly because they are repeatable, mathematical. But the narrative quipus remain untranslated. Because after the 15th century Spanish conquest of the Inca, quipus were considered a threat to the new colonialist record-keeping; the colonizers simply didn’t understand what they were looking at. And so they were considered idolatrous, indigenous objects that needed to be banned and destroyed.
There’s a painful irony to the fact that the few quipus we have today were mostly salvaged from pre-colonial burial sites – that death essentially preserved them. Because this intentional destruction of a cultural artifact is itself a kind of death. It’s not just the obliteration of the physical object itself, it’s the obliteration of memory, that shapeshifter that we take with us when we die. Only a privileged few Inca had the ability to translate the narrative quipu even before the arrival of the colonizers, and they, savagely, but not surprisingly, were among the first targets. Awareness was destroyed even before the objects. And so the object itself its inert, lifeless. A dead body, robbed of its awareness. A locked box without meaning. The quipu, Vicuña writes, that remembers nothing.
So now look again at Vicuña’s enormous installation, the twenty-five-foot-long woolen knots that are suspended from the ceiling, much larger and thicker than any traditional quipu would ever be, as though magnified by a mind subsumed with grief. The quipu is in the middle of the room, surrounded by displays of traditional quipus and Andean cloth, like planets revolving around the sun, as Boston Globe critic Cate McQuaid writes. Yet they also feel like they’re grounding this enormous metaphor more firmly in its context. They help to explain what we’re seeing, especially the projections of Andean cloth on the wool, as though the wool itself were bodies to be clothed in this fabric. The textiles themselves were utterly ordinary in Andean culture, Vicuña writes, yet the spiritual value of creating them, and especially the process of weaving, can’t be overlooked. “Weaving,” she writes, “combined with the knot-making language of the quipu, conveyed their understanding of the sacred threads that interconnected all beings in the cosmos. All weavers,” she concludes, “see a universe between thread and thread.”
And it’s striking how, In Vicuña’s work, the act of weaving becomes a metaphor of all creation. Projected onto the quipu, this simple cloth becomes a series of stories memorialized on a narrative canvas; her chanting and soundscape becomes a voice conversing with the past. And we can imagine Vicuña evoking this past in our presence, creating the quipu, cutting the wool, tying the knots, briefly recovering what has been lost, while simultaneously drawing our awareness to the fact that it has been lost. That even this quipu is ephemeral. That because of the weight of the wool, these knots will eventually fall out, and whatever story they tell will be gone.
And I think this is also an important element to this specific quipu, that if these knots are indeed telling a contemporary story, it hasn’t been translated for us. Maybe we now understand on a broader level what Vicuña is doing in this installation, but the quipu itself remains untranslated. And she plays with this juxtaposition of welcome and resistance, of the language that you simultaneously can and can’t understand. She describes the quipu itself as womblike – she told me this herself when I asked her how she anticipated a visitor would experience it. And yet, she doesn’t let you go inside it. Many fiber artists welcome you into their altered spaces, their unexpected use of materials, but she doesn’t. There are lines on the floor you can’t cross. Inviting and tactile as it is, you can’t actually touch this wool. The quipu is still playing the role of the untranslated device that resists our understanding. And the thing is, maybe these knots do mean something to Vicuña. Maybe she speaks their language. But if she does, she’s not translating them for us. She’s a poet, not a translator, and rightly skeptical anyway when it comes to second-hand translation. After all, what we even know about Incan culture is what we’ve learned from the Spanish. And so, if we want these knots to talk again, we can’t depend on her. We have to use our own memory, our own awareness, to project a story onto these knots, to make them speak again in a language we can understand.
I was thinking about this a lot, the idea that Vicuna’s role here was done, and the rest was up to me. To interpret, to translate. I spent an afternoon in the gallery, in the presence of the quipu, listening. And completely innocuously, a young mother moved slowly past me, her babbling baby in the stroller. I didn’t notice him at first; his little squeaks were barely audible over Vicuña’s vocalizations, they just sounded one and the same. It was almost like he was in conversation with her. Like hey, he thought, I can make weird little sounds too. Vicuña’s recording got louder and so did this baby. Of course, his mother noticed, and as young mothers do – and which I probably would have done – she high-tailed it out of the gallery so as not to disturb the other visitors. And I wanted to chase after them and say wait, your baby actually understands this installation so much better than any of us. He connects with these sounds, he makes his own meaning, and he creates this nascent language in response. He understands his own awareness, even if he couldn’t possibly understand yet what he’s aware of. And maybe it’s this awareness, so primal and rich with possibility, that creates the potential for a brand-new translation, an unlocked box cracked wide open, and containing the universe that exists between thread and thread.
The installation, Disappeared Quipu, is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until January 21, 2019. And I should add that the MFA generously gave me the opportunity to interview Cecilia Vicuña, and you can listen to the full interview on my website. I’ll also be releasing it separately into your podcatchers, so keep an eye out.
Special thanks to Ashley Bleimes, to the intrepid museum-goers at the MFA, and to Cecilia herself for speaking so freely with me about her work. For more information and past episodes, go to thelonelypalette.com, or you can follow us on Twitter @lonelypalette, or on Instagram @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, leave a rating and review on Apple podcasts, and if you really want to deliver some holiday cheer, support the show on Patreon. And guys, we are so close to hitting the goal of the Second Annual Year-End Listener Patreon Challenge, we can practically taste that droopy face. Go the patreon.com/lonelypalette and be the hero who pushes us over the edge. And remember that if you pledge at $5 or more per episode between November 12th and December 31st, you’re entered into the running to win a framed cross-stitch of the Ecce Homo by local Somerville, MA artist Purgatory Limited. This is literally not an opportunity you can afford to miss. Again, that’s patreon.com/lonelypalette.
The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of Boston-centric, idea-driven podcasts.And if you’re digging hearing from a living artist, then you won’t want to miss a recent episode of Culture Hustlers, where host Lucas Spivey and his team sits down with Le’Andra LeSeur, winner of ArtPrize 10, that overwhelming, incredible art festival that’s held yearly in Grand Rapids, Michigan.LeSeur talks about her BFA, Black Lives Matter, and what it means to be all-in on your mission as an artist.Listen now at hubspokeaudio.org, or directly at culturehustlers.com.