Roberto Tejada

Essential Grammar

(A review of The Precarious: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña + QUIPOem)

As if to mimic the outwardly opposing nature but inseparable link between poetry and visual culture, this flip-book is partitioned into a critical assessment of Cecilia Vicuña’s corpus to date and, on the reverse side, into QUIPOem, a logbook and mid-career recounting in verse, transcription and citings, by Vicuña herself on her own varied artwork and performative interventions.

The Precarious: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña features contributions by Lucy Lippard, M. Catherine de Zegher, Billie Jean Isbell, Regina Harrison, Hugo Méndez-Ramírez and Kenneth Sherwood. Together, the essays and interview reveal how Vicuña’s poetry and visual art are interchangeable, each taking its essential grammar from the notion that art- and speech-forms can be intimately linked to natural shapes, and the stories woven to account for their meanings. De Zegher does well by locating Vicuña’s practice as grounded, on one level, in work that emerged out of the Brazilian neo-concrete movement during its second, less constructivist, povera phase (as in the art of Lygia Clark or Hélio Oiticica). Lippard places Vicuña’s work alongside artists such as Jimmie Durham or David Hammons who "respect and rehabilitate in very different ways the discards of mainstream society." And Kenneth Sherwood does a cohesive job of underlining the peculiar crux of Vicuña’s aesthetics: the material nature of her poems-- orality, and the conversation her work performs "between poetry--and what has all too often been defined as its opposite--myth."

Wood, bone, thread, clay shards, matches, nails, shells, cardboard cut-outs, stamps, feathers, rags, tiny containers of all kinds, twigs, and sundry rubber and plastic debris all conspire in a work that enacts--between the city and country, between culture and nature--an archeology whose end results are diminutive markers of presence. With titles like Cemetery, Guardian, or Tree of Life, these tiny flagstones or altars are borne of the question as to whether we are in fact destined to recycle the endless flotsam of an increasingly disposable world; to reconstruct the constellations found in urban streets or natural vistas--a pressing accountability that speaks of the fragile nature involved in all refiguring.

Vicuña belongs to a tradition that harks back to early modernist poet-painters in Latin America like Xul Solar and César Moro, or to contemporary artist-poet practitioners like Jorge Eduardo Eielson. Her poetry and art have also featured a series of unagitated political interventions. In a documentary filmed in Bogotá (where the artist lived for many years after the fall of Allende in her native Chile), Vicuña posed the question "What is poetry to you?" to passers-by, beggars, prostitutes, and policemen. Also in Bogotá, when it was revealed that 1,920 children died each year from contaminated milk ‘to total indifference on the part of the State’-Vicuña photographed herself tying a yarn around a glass of milk set out in the street in front of a government building, and then pulled the yarn so that the resulting white spatter of spilled contents resembled a large blood stain.

Because many of these acts remain only in transcription and document, they are forceful reminders that 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:

The No

The first precarious works were not documented,

they existed only for the memories of a few citizens.


History, as a fabric of inclusion and exclusion, did not

embrace them.

(The history of the north excludes that of the south, and

the history of the south excludes itself, embracing only the

north’s reflections.)

In the void between the two, the precarious and its

non-documentation established their non-place as another


Vicuña’s practice is aware of the ceaseless transformations involved in the passage of commonplace objects and events into the realm of art-making, whereby object equals word, speech equals act, and action equals artifact--as if to stave off the weathering effects of time and decay. In her writing and art, the transient nature of the physical is made manifest, and the arbitrary nature of the invisible world is revealed: "Desire is the offering, the body is nothing but a metaphor."



Original Source: Poetry Bay-An Online Magazine for the 21st Century. Summer 2000
http://> Reprinted with author's permission.

Roberto Tejada was born in Los Angeles, California and is presently Assistant Professor in Visual Arts at UCSD. From 1987 to 1997 he worked in Mexico City, where he founded the English-Spanish annual Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas. His art writing, photography criticism, literary essays, and translations appear regularly in catalogs and journals in the United States and Latin America. Gift and Verdict, a collection of poems, was published in 1999 by the Leroy Chapbook Series.