Cecilia Vicuña’s Guggenheim Exhibition Captures the Lost Art of the Quipu

Cecilia Vicuña in her exhibition reaching toward a piece of art
Photograph by David Heald; courtesy of the Guggenheim

Thousands of years ago, Indigenous people in the Andean mountains devised the quipu, an intricate system of colored threads and knots that kept records, told stories, created poems, and recorded communal agreements. European colonizers banned this millenary form of communication, thinking it would disappear forever. Thankfully, this was not the case.

The Chilean artist, activist, and poet, Cecilia Vicuña, has made it her purpose to breathe new life into the Andean quipu. “The moment I discovered [one], I knew somehow that the quipu and I had something to do with each other,” she says. Over the course of her decades-long career, she has created thousands of these vibrant thread sculptures, or expressions of “spatial poetry,” as she calls them, to respond to global violence, ecological catastrophe, and cultural erasure. She has built them on the ocean shore, deep within forests, and on sky-scraping glaciers. They have hung from the ceilings of museums and galleries around the world, as shrines to otherwise forgotten Indigenous heritages. And from May 27th to September 5th, 2022, her latest, “Quipu del exterminio / Extermination Quipu,” will be on show at the Guggenheim as a part of “Spin Spin Triangulene,” her first solo museum exhibition in the city she has called home for more than forty years.

A quipu installation from Cecilia Vicuña’s Spin Spin Triangulene, on view May 27, 2022 to September 5, 2022, at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York.

Photograph by David Heald; courtesy of the Guggenheim

Although the 74-year-old artist was born in Santiago, Chile, she fled her home country in the ’70s following the military coup against former president Salvador Allende, and arrived in New York City in 1980, where she has been making multimedia artworks ever since. Reflecting on the overdue recognition of her work in her adoptive city, Vicuña says she doesn’t think it speaks volumes about her as an artist, nor her work. Instead, “It speaks about New York. About the fact that we are by definition invisible. [I’m] a South American woman who, on top of that, is an Indigenous mestizo, the three most invisible people in the world, condensed in one little body,” she adds. “That’s what happens in New York: there’s an unwillingness to see.”

An Inca man in Peru holds a quipu. Engraving from Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (1550-after 1615), Nueva Cronica y Buen Gobierno, 1587.

Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

But in 2017, the trajectory of Vicuña’s career changed significantly. Although she had been making art and poetry for more than five decades, her work was featured that year in the renowned art festival, Documenta 14, along with the Hammer Museum’s “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” exhibition. The increased attention on her oeuvre has not stopped since. This year alone, her work was included in the main show at the Venice Biennale, where she received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award; she was also selected for the prestigious site-specific commission at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, set to open from October 2022 to April 2023.

Above anything else, Vicuña sees herself as a poet. “The notion that art and poetry are two completely separate fields is an exclusively academic idea. It’s not at all how an artist or a poet perceives it,” she says. “For me, both are deeply intertwined. I consider myself a poet because I think in terms of poetry, but that doesn’t mean my thoughts are going to manifest in a written form. They can manifest as a quipu, a painting, a song, or a dance. Poetry has a far wider definition than any other—it means to make [something] out of nothing.”

In fact, the title of her Guggenheim solo show, “Spin Spin Triangulene,” is a poetic composition inspired by the triangulene, a recently discovered unstable molecule the artist associates with the Guggenheim’s spiraling rotunda—and her quipus. The exhibition will feature a wide array of her works, including textiles, films, works on paper, and paintings, created specifically for the occasion.

Paintings from Cecilia Vicuña’s Spin Spin Triangulene exhibition.

Photograph by David Heald; courtesy of the Guggenheim

Pieces featured in the exhibition such as Autobiografía (Autobiography), La Vicuña (The Vicuña), and Ángel de la menstruación (Angel of Menstruation), stand out as surreal figurative paintings that reveal the artist’s inclination to produce works alluding to her life experience as a mestiza, or South American woman. “I think everything is practically autobiographical, in the sense that even if you are exploring a thought, it’s still your thought,” she says.

Despite the increased attention Vicuña has received over the past few years, she is adamant about staying true to herself and refuses to engage with mainstream ideas of what art allegedly is or should be. “Art is one of the few fields where nothing is defined. Where nothing is the way it should be or ought to be,” she says. “Even though art schools try hard, they don’t succeed. Thank god. If you’re a real artist, you don’t want to be defined from the outside.”

Cecilia Vicuña (center) performs at Documenta Hall on June 8, 2017 in Kassel, Germany.

Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

For as long as she has created work, Vicuña has engaged in relentless activism, particularly surrounding climate change. During her recent acceptance of the Golden Lion Award in Venice, she warned, “We badly need to find a new way of being on this earth.” Expanding on how we can move forward in this direction, she says: “We have cultures that have been on Earth, on a continuous basis, for 70,000 years. They’re still alive. One very basic thing [we can do] is to learn from them. To know that it is possible to exist and relate to this earth, to each other, in a different way.”

Considering the increasingly urgent subjects Vicuña has surveyed through her work for so long, I’m compelled to ask if and how she manages to stay hopeful about the future. “I think the question of hope is sort of, how can I say, damned—maldita,” she says. “Because if you’re hopeful, it’s like you’re not really seeing what’s going on. And if you’re not hopeful, it means you’re not human. So I think we have to be. And in my heart, I still have a glimmer of hope that there will be an awakening before it’s too late. Because the planet is becoming uninhabitable for humans. And who’s listening?”