Critical Notes


Cecilia Vicuña’s intriguing trajectory -- from her early identification with the indigenous people of her native Chile to her current identity as an internationally respected poet and artist—is exemplary but hardly ordinary. Few artists so buffeted by a lifetime of political circumstances have found such uniquely poetic ways to respond to the winds of terror, change, and hope. (Eduardo Galeano comes to mind, with his admonition to “save pessimism for better times.”)"

Lucy R. Lippard, "Cecilia Vicuña: The Persistence of Joy" in Artists for Democracy: Archivo de Cecilia Vicuña (Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos / Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago de Chile, 2014)


If the precarios are the common formal thread, the action of weaving itself is the aesthetic and spiritual thread that runs through all of Vicuña's cultural production. ("In the Andes, they say that to weave is to give light.")...Often the thread in Vicuña's work is combined with or stands for water.  "The water wants to be heard" she says." "Everything is falling apart because of lack of connections. Weaving is the connection that is missing, the connection between people and themselves, people and nature."...Vicuña's phrase "the water wants to be heard" was used in an environmental action for the Mapocho River in Santiago and adopted as a slogan by the Riverkeeper Movement on the Delaware River. This pleases her: "To have the words talk back to the water, as the water speaks to the word!" 

Lucy R. Lippard, ""Spinning the Common Thread" in The Precarious The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña (Ed. Catherine de Zegher, Wesleyan University Press, 1997)


Vicuña’s ritual, in other words, confronts the very real limitations that we — not just academics here, the indigenous there, or scholars and poets here, laborers there, and so on — we who share the same ritual of being public must transcend as a radically conceived political body through engaging the very empirical architecture that makes and thus signifies our environment back onto us. The movement of etymology and our use of the materials created to construct our lived in spaces must be freed by the expectations of language to solidify experience. Poetry imparts meaning from within the gaps and fissures of verified time, giving form to the “open” spaces and abstract arrangements available for engaging in shared politics.

José Felipe Alvergue, "The Material Etymologies of Cecilia Vicuña: Art, Sculpture and Poetic Communities"


Cecilia Vicuña says, “The true performance is that of our species on Earth: the way we cause suffering to others, the way we warm the atmosphere or cause other species to disappear. I cover myself with clouds to feel like the Earth feels.” Spit Temple, woven by the brilliant hands of Rosa Alcalá, is an enormous cloud, the enormity of which is unspeakably moving and beautiful. The two shaman artists, Vicuña and Alcalá, offer us the rarest of rare salve for all of Earth’s memories.

Don Mee Choi, Judges' Citation for Spit Temple, runner-up for the 2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation


[...] these artists are formulating a practice of the everyday that refigures the consciousness of the viewer, focusing on line, time, space -a radical return.... in which a string or delicate line has great political, social or aesthetic implications.... I am thinking here of Cecilia Vicuña's many works using lines of string, fabric, or even liquid." 

Cornelia Butler for the exhibition "OnLINE" (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012)


If you are not familiar with Cecilia Vicuña, she is an enormously influential and important person both for Latin American Poetry as well as for Conceptual art and for feminist writing. And in this book Sabor A Mi, which is of l973, we have a really stunning and historically important example of all the many trajectories that Vicuña has worked on in her career.  There are 200 original versions of this book Sabor A Mi that were made as an artist book and it has been reproduced as a paperback and it is actually a book I use in my class, but at the School we are lucky enough to have number 1 of the 200 issues of the book. We think that Felipe Ehrenberg gave this copy of the book to the artists collection. The relationship there is interesting as well because it helps to cement a very important movement that was happening at the Americas in the 70's of which Ehrenberg and Vicuña were part. It is a very early example of very direct and challenging political writing that is taking on the Military coup at the moment that it is happening. Also it has been very important in terms of bringing indigenous writing in two different literary canons in South America. And she was one of the early conceptual artists working in Chile and this book, among other things, serves as an incredible document of this very, very intense, important moment both in Latin American politics and Latin American writing.

Daniel BorzutskyJudges' Citation for Spit Temple, runner-up for the 2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation


This first experience of Vicuña’s performance in 1995—confusing and appealing at once—perhaps mimics the experiences many audiences have had watching her performances, as Rodrigo Toscano confirms when he voices the audience’s collective uneasiness by asking, “just what is this woman doing?” Although Vicuña 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. This “spoken poetics,” Sherwood writes, must be understood as “interface or hybrid (and not a ‘transitional technique’) between the oral and the written” (78). Echoing the darker side of historical debates concerning orality and textuality, Vicuña, instead, refers to the space between them as “a war zone” whose frontline is necessarily the performance. Ken Sherwood has us reconsider the limitations of “improvisation” as a description for Vicuña’s performances, suggesting instead that we think of the technique as “more a kind of listening.”6 Sherwood suggests, in other words, that Vicuña isn’t letting herself go in just any direction, as we might associate with improvisation, but instead is listening to and harnessing, in a purposeful way, the energies and memories of language itself.

Rosa Alcalá, “Made Not of Words, But Forces”: Cecilia Vicuña’s Oral Performances in Spit Temple The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012)


When she performs, her voice seems to come from some mythical pre-Babel moment in which languages complemented  each other and functioned in unison. Her “milk / del trans / late” yields, for instance, “the in me / grant / ing / me / life.” Migration, here, implies not a severing but the opposite, the unfolding of plurality and the possibility of encompassing a larger whole. Her vocal cords are as much an instrument of light as is the minimal sculpture featured in this last piece. The sculpture consists of a shell suspended from a string, reflecting light as it turns from one side to another. However, once, the shell doesn’t manage to turn 180 degrees and show its interior to the viewer. Its purpose is not to display itself but rather transmit light, just as Vicuña’s work is a conduit for language to reveal its miraculous  essence. 

Mónica de la Torre, Review of Instan in The Poetry Project Newsletter (2003)


Vicuña's work, at its very essence, is ‘a way of remembering’—as if exile and recall joined to unravel an ‘autobiography in debris;’ as one personal story within a larger narrative.

Roberto TejadaJudges' Citation for Spit Temple, runner-up for the 2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation


If the “everyone-in-everyone” has been a NY super-trope explored from Walt Whitman to Garcia Lorca to Bruce Andrews (scores of other poets would equally apply here) then Cecilia Vicuña can properly be said to be in that line. But more than “lines” “tropes” “methods” or “traditions” Vicuña’s poetry is concerned with the journey from “every-word-in-every-word” to “everyone-in-everyone.” "…. In a manner of speaking, she doesn’t “refer” to baskets, she gets us to pull the very reeds for the basket. She doesn’t “refer” to the English, or Spanish, or the many native languages such as Quechua that appear in her work, she summons them one unto the other—through concerted action, as through our live and on-site comprehension of them.

Rodrigo ToscanoJudges' Citation for Spit Temple, runner-up for the 2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation


"Vicuña’s ouvrage challenges such questions of recent art as the status of the object, the relation of the artist and the viewer/reader, bodily action, the space/time relation, the at inner and outer environment, and the connection of the visual to the other senses, once moving viewers away from their habit of compartmentalizing artistic production into separate media. At the same time it evokes a polemical attitude toward modernity, investigating a universal artistic development without negating local forms of expression...Thus Vicuña reconsiders the changes of the signified into the signifying and vice versa. Vicuña dwells in im/possibility (as did Violeta Parra and Xul Solar). She demands a laying open of the mechanisms that produce meaning, particularly the formation of a language. Her ideal is a discourse characterized by plurality, the open interplay of elements, and the possibility of infinite recombination. However, Vicuña concludes that “(visual) language something which can not be named.” As an advocate of feminist and ecological issues, and the first Chilean to revive indianism in poetry and art, Vicuña addressed questions of ritual, frailty and the perishability of life."

Catherine de Zegher, "Cecilia Vicuña's Ouvrage:' knot a not, notes as knots"


The poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña was a pioneer in experimental art in Chile a decade before happenings and other genre-bending artistic displays emerged in the mid-seventies as a deliberately cryptic form of resistance to the violent military regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973–90). By the mid-sixties Vicuña was altering landscapes, disrupting cityscapes, and mining the precariousness of language to produce new forms of socially engaged art. e abstract designs she traced on the beach at Con-cón in 1966 (where the Aconcagua River meets the Pacific Ocean), for instance, were earthworks avant la lettre, but their evocation of an indigenous aesthetic combined with the impermanence of the piece (the marks were washed away by the tide, and only photographs remain) made palpable the loss of a disappeared civilization. The imperative of incorporating indigenous notions of art, nature, and the sacred into a nonmimetic, neovanguard artistic practice became a core tenet of the Tribu No ‘No Tribe,’ which Vicuña would later found with her friends.

Her art and poetry invite a rethinking of those connections in terms of an interrogation of the ways in which global cultural memory is constructed and a politics of hope is forged. 

Juliet Lynd, “Precarious Resistance: Weaving Opposition in the Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña”


Vicuna has gained international recognition...but her revolutionary vision of the late sixties and early seventies has never been released in the monumental form—the original Sabor a mí manuscript—that had earned high praise from some and censure from others. While several of these early poems have since appeared in anthologies and other venues, the prescient vision of social consciousness depicted in the first Sabor a mi manuscript remains unavailable. 

Juliet Lynd, "The Precarious History of a Tenacious Manuscript And The Poetry Worlds of Cecilia Vicuña"


"Vicuña’s formally innovative film refigures precarity, as the fragility of life and culture under conditions of neoliberal globalization, into planetarity. Composed of both ritualized re-enactments of the artist’s oeuvre and documentary footage of the disappearing culture of the dunes, the film presents the dissonant flute-playing orchestras of the local indigenous fishermen as both threatened by, and performing an alternative to, the destructive forces of globalization." 

Candice Amich, "Precarity to Planetarity: Cecilia Vicuña’s Kon Kon"


While Vicuña’s poetics are not definitively limited by gender, it becomes clear in ‘‘Nidal de nubes’’ / ‘‘Cloud Nest’’ and other poems that the legacy of cloud-net, its spinning and weaving against death, its movement between manifestation and manifestación, belongs primarily to women. Perhaps with the exception of some unnamed gallery workers, it is women who manifest and manipulate cloud-net’s poems in their multi-sensory, physical performances, as in the poem ‘‘Er,’’ and it is women who are tangled, encumbered, and slowed toward thought in the cloud-net webs. No doubt this bias reflects the fact that, historically, spinning and weaving have been considered women’s work by most ancient cultures (Kruger 22). Vicuña reminds us that a girl inherits the ability to weave from the maternal line almost as soon as she is born, and, in the strictest anatomical sense, each woman contains within her body her own womb, her own matrix, her own cloud-net (Quipoem 22). It is from this ‘‘undone hem’’ that each woman’s vision spirals outward in material language, expanding the weave of her matrix and manifesting a new physical graft between her body and the actual world. Just as certainly as she is bound by this graft, even slowed or stopped by it, she is freed – to speak, to sing, to trill. If the work of cloud-net is to survive, women in New York, in Buffalo, in Houston, in Santiago, Chile, and elsewhere must continue to move and weave toward a shared, cumulative cloud-net.

Julie Phillips Brown, "‘touch in transit’: Manifestation / Manifestación in Cecilia Vicuña’s cloud-net"


Cecilia Vicuña, is both a visual artist and a poet. She takes a different approach to cultural critique than [Alfredo]Jaar, entirely rejecting the commercial imagery that ordinarily invades our sight. Rather, she proposes a discourse strategy based in disappearance (or, anti-monumentality), that not only serves as a model of resistance, but also as a suggestion for how to move toward future possibilities...As the text reads here, the precario represents the belief that “maximum fragility” can work against “maximum power.” 

Jena Osman, "Is Poetry the News?: The Poethics of the Found Text"


The Village Voice writes of Vicuña: "This extraordinary Chilean poet explores levels of politics and sensuality, a tensing inescapable combination." Other critics write that she is "one of the most protean and talented Latin American artists today" and that "no one else has produced a poetry as stark and direct among us."

Ken Sherwood, "A Reader's Guide to the Writing of Cecilia Vicuña"


As deployed by Vicuña, at least, the performance does not call meaning into question so much as it invites a sensual, creative engagement in the continuation of meaning-making (by virtue of the metaphors of song, flight, weaving, and so on). 

         Ken Sherwood, "Elaborate Versionings: Characteristics of Emergent Performance in Three Print/Oral/Aural Poets"