She studied Visual Arts Pedagogy at the Universidad de Chile, between 1966 and 1971, and in 1972 she traveled to London to do a postgraduate degree at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London (UCL). In 1973, when the political situation changed in Chile, beginning of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Vicuña remained in exile in London. In 1975 she left England and began her journey through several Latin American countries such as Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, studying the knowledge, rites, traditions, customs and Andean ancestral culture, part of the source of inspiration for her work. And since the late 1980s she lives in New York.
The genesis of her artistic expressions, which she has developed throughout her visual and textual production ─ “Precarious” (environmental art), experimental poetry and installations with quipus (textiles or writings in the form of knots) ─, began in the 60s, when she was a teenager. Vicuña says in an interview with the journalist Claudia Donoso: (...) “I think that one has internal knowledge without knowing it. That knowledge is denied by Western culture; on the other hand, the indigenous people, the shamans, and wise people recognize that knowledge”.
That primitive knowledge or ancient thought, which she later studies and makes aware of, was what induced her in 1966 to make her first "precarious" or "garbage" (“basuritas”) (1), as she defines her series of ephemeral sculptures or assemblies built with garbage found, as she did at the beginning on the beach of Concón, Valparaíso, with bones, sticks, stones, pieces of nets, among other materials. Implicit in this type of work is the idea of an offering to nature, which merges or goes with it as a way of finding a balance with the natural world. These ephemeral installations are specific to spaces such as nature, streets, or museums, combined with actions or rituals.
Around that time, in the 1960s, Vicuña also discovered the power of written language and began to write poetry, poetic writing that nurtures on words in Spanish, English, Mapudungun (Mapuche language), and Quechua, among others. It was around 1975 that she began to reassemble and invent words with which she began to consider the creation of internal metaphors, that is, what she called “Palabramas”, words to assemble.
In relation to the quipus ─woven or knotted ropes, bearers of meanings, facts to remember, make numerical calculations, collect stories or legends─, Vicuña says that she began to make them in the 1960s as well, as an act of poetic resistance. Vicuña has claimed and aesthetically elevated the quipus, transforming them into spatial poems, monumental sculptures, installations, and performances, made with wool. For her: “The word is a thread, and the thread is language”. In this way, she metaphorizes what the quipus are, or rather their entire creation, which is united by poetry; poetry to be read, seen, and performed.
Among the most important awards received by Cecilia Vicuña are the Premio Velázquez de Artes Plásticas, received in 2019; and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 59th Venice Art Biennale, obtained in 2022, to whose awards we add the well-deserved recognition with the individual exhibition organized and inaugurated by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, on May 27, this year, an institution that for the first time exhibits in its spaces the artistic career of a Latin American woman.
This exhibition, Spin Spin Triangulene, presents the artistic production of Vicuña from the end of the 1960s to the present, in which her multidisciplinary practice is evident, which includes paintings, works on paper, textiles, performance, videos and an installation created specifically for the site, made up of a huge quipu, an exhibition in which the artist explores issues related to indigenous memory and worldview, as well as quantum physics.