Resistance artist Cecilia Vicuña on hope, death and the end of humanity

Cecilia Vicuña: Lecture and discussion

240 Art Building West — Thursday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m.

Cecilia Vicuña: Poetry reading and reception

Frank Conroy Reading Room, Dey House — Friday, Feb. 15 at 4:30 p.m.

Film screening, Kon Kon (dir. Cecilia Vicuña)

105 Adler Journalism Building — Saturday, Feb. 16 at 3 p.m.

Artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña at Museno Nacional de Bellas Artes, Chile. — fair use

There are artists — those who produce art — and there are those who live a life that is a work of art in itself: an ode of an existence. Visual artist, writer and filmmaker Cecilia Vicuña embodies a life in which those lines are blurred.

To speak with her is to be in the presence of someone so intensely dedicated, so embedded in their own art, that it becomes difficult to tell what is the piece or performance and what is the person.

Chilean by birth and childhood, Vicuña has been living in exile since 1973 when her country’s sitting president was displaced in an American-backed coup d’état led by military dictator Augusto Pinochet. The fear of communism within America gave way to the fear of death by dictator within Chile. In the end, an estimated 3,000 Chileans were executed, 80,000 interned in camps and tens of thousands tortured — an impact of a U.S. foreign policy decision not publicized on the nightly news or written about in our history books. After leaving Chile, Vicuña lived first in London and then Bogotá, Colombia before moving to New York City in 1980 and finding her artist community.

Vicuña’s work — her visual art, her film and her poetry — is founded in resistance. It explores themes of ecological destruction, cultural homogenization and economic disparity. Ultimately, it deals with the questions of humanity and our collective actions.

Vicuña has written over 22 books of poetry and art. Her earliest work was as part of an action-based group artists and poets, La Tribu No. Vicuña gave the group its name and authored its “No Manifesto.”

‘El Vaso de Leche,’ by Cecilia Vicuña

Between 1972-73, during Pinochet’s takeover, Vicuña created more than 400 sculptural interventions called precarios as an act of political resistance. In 1979, while living in Bogotá, Vicuña performed a piece called El Vaso de Leche (The Glass of Milk), in which she gathered an audience and spilled a glass of white paint to protest the deaths of an estimated 1,920 children due to contaminated milk. (The company responsible had mixed fillers such as paint into the milk to maximize their profits.)

Museums that have exhibited her work include the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Santiago; the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and many others. Her work is also displayed in the Cerrillos National Center for Contemporary Art near where she grew up. Alongside her paintings, poetry and films, there is also documentation of the work she has done with activist groups like La Tribu No, Artists for Democracy in London and the Heresies Collective. In 2018, she became the Princeton University Art Museum’s Sarah Lee Elson International Artist-in-Residence.

Today, Vicuña divides her time between Chile and New York. This February she’ll visit Iowa City to collaborate with University of Iowa writing programs as well as give a reading performance at the UI’s Dey House. In advance of her visit, Little Village spoke with her about her inspirations, her musings and the future of humanity.

‘Cajita e’ tierra’ by Cecilia Vicuña — Journal of Objects for the Chilean Resistance

Your work deals with complex existentialist themes. What are you most captivated with right now?

Death. Because death from the indigenous perspective is what makes life important. It’s what makes us completely grounded in the present. Death is your companion. Your wisdom comes from death. Death is what unites you, and everything that was before and what comes after you. Death is the great connector. That is the indigenous view — that death is a creative force. Now humanity is facing a completely different description of death — one as a terminal affair. We are causing the death of so many things. Death of the oceans, forests, languages, of cultures. I am facing this new kind of death.

Death of ecology, languages and cultures — these have a permanence to them. How do these make you feel?

I feel sorrow that I didn’t know was possible. I had an inkling of that sorrow when the military culture in Chile destroyed everything — this was a death of our culture and the first time in my life that I feel this deep pain. But this sorrow now is about the possibility of the end of humanity — and that this is all happening but without humanity even aware of this itself.

Why do you think there is such a gap between people who see the great risks we are facing and people who don’t?

This culture that we are in believes that everything has to be converted into profit. It destroys our humanness. It is sort of that we are covered in a sort of rubber. It prevents us from feeling anything.

What, if anything, do you believe American culture suppresses?

The fear that what we are doing is not right. Because, you see, there is this American nation that was founded by the immigrants from England only three centuries ago; not so long ago, these immigrants were trying to create a pure image of righteousness. This served them to exploit and profit from what is around them, even though the view was distorted or covered up by disguises like democracy that doesn’t really exist. I think there is this deep fear in America that this righteousness — that it is not quite justified. When I think of it, what can be driving the force of feeling better than others if it is not fear?

It is terrifying, isn’t it? It is this notion of superiority that we can tell someone else how to think or feel. That is the most destructive force on the planet right now.

What role do you believe art and writing can play in helping us coalesce and enhance the possibilities for humanity to change?

‘Karl Marx,’ 1972, oil on canvas by Cecilia Vicuña

Well, if you look at history, it shows us that in grave moments of humanity, always something new and unexpected comes to the rescue. This is what is called the phenomena of emergence. When everything rational says there is zero source of hope of survival for humanity, this is the only chance we have. Rationality is limited in terms of what we can find in it.

I have stock in the idea that we are going to move to a new dimension of humanity. I think of a quote by César Vallejo from Peru: “The function of poetry was to touch the cords that are so deeply embedded in our humanness, that change can be achieved.”

Your work is a clear testament to these beliefs. What do we have to look forward to during your visit to Iowa City?

I have four new books; they are very different from each other. In a way you can say they are all poetry, but they also tell stories. I sometimes speak, sometimes read, sometimes I just chant. Because in the moment of encounter, when are with a live audience, all kinds of wonderful things happen.

Andrea Wilson lives in Iowa City and writes nonfiction. She is the founder of the community writing organization, the Iowa Writers’ House. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 257.

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