At BAMPFA, the Discarded and Forgotten Become Prayers for the Future

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Installation view of 'Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen' with 'Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood,' 2017 at left. (Photo by Johnna Arnold; Courtesy of BAMPFA)

As I walked away from Cecilia Vicuña’s survey exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, I thought about accumulation.

Representing a career spanning four decades, from her childhood in Chile to an adult life spent across multiple continents, About to Happen demonstrates an accumulation of objects and time, but also an accumulation of knowledge—often ancestral, ancient knowledge. At a time when newness is privileged (especially here, in the land of real-life beta testing) and objects are discarded in favor of cloud-based, intangible systems, this exhibition comes as a refreshing reminder that things carry meaning.

Installation view of ‘About to Happen.’
Installation view of ‘About to Happen.’ (Photo by Johnna Arnold; Courtesy of BAMPFA)

The show, co-curated by Andrea Andersson of the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans and UC Berkeley professor Julia Bryan-Wilson (and organized at BAMPFA by curator of modern and contemporary art, Apsara DiQuinzio), occupies just three rooms in the museum's downstairs space, but it’s filled with well over a hundred objects. Most of those are Vicuña’s Precarios, small sculptures made from driftwood, bits of plastic, electrical wire, fishing line, rocks and feathers. They cover two walls of the exhibition’s largest gallery and scatter across a large, low pedestal like tiny ships on calm sea of white paint. They’re impossibly delicate, made not just of ephemeral, discarded materials, but held together impermanently by bits of string, or simply by gravity.

Vicuña began the series in 1966, when she was still a teenager, making (actually) impermanent sculptures along a Chilean beach called Con cón, where the Aconcagua River meets the Pacific Ocean. During the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Vicuña was studying art in London and she found herself involuntarily exiled from her home country.

A Precario in About to Happen,
A Precario in About to Happen, (Photo by Johnna Arnold; Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Made, exhibited and transported over 40 years spent across Europe and the Americas, the Precarios (which Vicuña also calls basuritas, or “little garbages”) become stand-ins for the people and things discarded by society—Pinochet’s victims, the world’s indigenous populations, the natural resources that would sustain us. The playful placement of the small sculptures hints at the resilience of marginalized communities and species, with two pieces installed low to the ground on the ramp leading down to the exhibition, bits of grass and sticks I didn’t even notice until I received installation images from the museum.


That interest in flexibility and adaptability takes another form in Vicuña’s quipus, inspired by the knotted textile record-keeping devices used by the Incas and other, older Andean cultures to record taxes, census data, calendar information, music, poems and historical narratives—all of which was encoded by knots in a yet-to-be-deciphered base ten positional system.

Cecilia Vicuña, 'Burnt Quipu,' 2018.
Cecilia Vicuña, 'Burnt Quipu,' 2018. (Photo by Johnna Arnold; Courtesy of BAMPFA)

The quipu is both text and textile, a tactile record that can be revised and rewritten. It is a form of documentation, Andersson writes in the exhibition catalog, “that refuses fixity.” Burnt Quipu, a site-specific piece made especially for the BAMPFA leg of this exhibition, commemorates the losses of the North Bay fires with hanging strips of wool dyed in the colors of fire, ash and charred wood. For Vicuña, this is a monument to not just local recent events, but to all places where human activity and resulting climate change have brought about destruction.

The material accumulation in Vicuña’s work doesn’t just flow one way—there’s a sense of contraction and dispersal in the objects, texts and moving images, like the movement of tides, or the inhale and exhale of breathing. In her artist’s books and scrolls, loose (usually red) thread forms words, then dissolves once again into a tangle.

Artist's books and scrolls, with 'We the People,' 2016 in the upper right.
Artist's books and scrolls, with 'We the People,' 2016 in the upper right. (Photo by Johnna Arnold; Courtesy of BAMPFA)

In an interview with Bryan-Wilson also included in the exhibition catalog, Vicuña talks about the uniquely human capacity to be “boundless and completely of-the-moment” at the same time. She calls it an experience of “double reality,” a description that might also capture what it feels like to be bilingual, or from one place, but living in another. Two of Vicuña's poems appear on the gallery walls, rendered in red vinyl for Spanish, and in parallel, an almost-invisible white for the English translation.

Ultimately, the accumulation that most impacted my slow walk back to BART happened in my own head: a swirl of ideas and references, sparked by Vicuña’s deep engagement with the environment (whether that’s Louisiana’s disappearing coastline or the plastic washed ashore at Con cón), the deceptively simple arrangements of her Precarios and the hope present throughout her work that ancient methods of caring for the land and its people could still be “about to happen.”

'Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen' is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through Oct. 14, 2018. Details here.