Cecilia Vicuña’s Kon Kon (2009)
Cecilia Vicuña is the 2009-10 Estelle Lebowitz Visiting Artist-in-Residence at Rutgers University and, last Wednesday night, she presented a screening of Kon Kon (2009), her film-in-progress (it has not yet been through post-production) that combines documentary, poetry, and ritualistic performance to chart the vanishing traditions of the small coastal town of Con Cón, Chile. While Valparaíso, a port city just to the south, is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for being “an excellent example of late 19th-century urban and architectural development in Latin America” and “an exceptional testimony to the early phase of globalisation in the late 19th century,” Kon Kon movingly demonstrates how the practices of indigenous fisherman called chinos (chino is a Quechua word for “servant”) are in threat of being forgotten precisely because of the “development” set in motion by globalization. The film documents their ceremonial dances in honor of the sea as well as a special kind of flute playing that produces a ghostly dissonance which Vicuña describes as “torn sound”—a sound which is perhaps not unlike what Nathaniel Mackey calls a “splay anthem.”
Con Cón also represents a significant place within the artist’s oeuvre as it was the first site of her ephemeral outdoor artworks which she calls precarios or basuritas (little rubbish). According to art critic Lucy Lippard, “The precarios,” like the improvisational assemblage portrayed in the film still above, “are visual poems, ‘metaphors in space’ …Their ‘fastening’ is so loose, so flexible, that the parts seem to have blown together into a whole that might metamorphose at any moment into another.” On the one hand, the fragile and fleeting nature of these constructions evoke the tenuous existence of the indigenous cultures that Vicuña seeks to honor and remember. Indeed, there is a mournful nostalgia that permeates much of Kon Kon, from Vicuña’s poetic, almost pained voice-overs to the evocative tableaux interspersed throughout the film—a ball of red yarn on the beach perched atop a typewriter, a piece of fabric snagged to a branch, a laptop on the top of an isolated hill playing a video of the dance of los chinos. On the other hand, I found a certain playfulness in the makeshift character of the precarios, and while they certainly lack the monumental scale and durability of Robert Smithson’s or Michael Heizer’s massive earthworks, their ephemeral and mutable existence attests to Vicuña’s agile and responsive repertoire: we get the sense that at any given moment, she can spontaneously intervene in her surrounding environment and stage what Juliet Lynd calls a “precarious resistance” (see Lynd’s article “Precarious Resistance: Weaving Opposition in the Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña” in PMLA 120.5 (2005)).
Vicuña was introduced by a scholar who immediately announced that he was an anthropologist and knew very little about art. I found this shoring up of disciplinary boundaries to be rather odd particularly since Vicuña’s wide-ranging work in a number of media bids us to think across and beyond such boundaries. In fact, I understand Kon Kon as a potent example of what Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks call theatre/archaeology, an interdisciplinary investigation that asks the primary question of how “site-specific performance…[is connected to the] interpretation of the past” (Theatre/Archaeology, i). While Vicuña’s film presents examples of traditional archaeology (she discusses a chino flute unearthed in the town of Carrascal and laments the fact that a refinery in Con Cón usurped the grounds of an ancient cemetery), her use of ritualistic performance—for example, she replicates a ceremony in which she takes shells from the beach to the top of the hill in honor of the rain—constitutes a “‘rescue archaeology’ not of physical remains but of cultural identity.” It is “an experimental archaeology rooted in creative reinterpretation of social fabric” (Theatre/Archaeology, 156-7).
In perhaps the most provocative moment of the film, Vicuña arranges a network of quipu-like threads (quipu are Incan recording devices of knotted cords) and attaches a series of photographs of Con Cón to it thereby creating a hybrid semiological system that she subsequently drapes on her body. She explains that the relatives of los desaparecidos (the disappeared)—the thousands of people who were kidnapped under the oppressive Pinochet regime—had a special way of hanging photographs of the missing persons. This troubling analogy suggests that the forgetting of the traditions of Con Cón enacts a violence to the social fabric that is on par with political terrorism; it is a bold claim and one that treats the site of Con Cón as a “crime scene” which “demands a poetics of absence.” Pearson and Shanks go on to explain, “The temporality of these spaces is one of aftermath – the traces left behind. Time is fractured as present appearances are haunted by indeterminate pasts, events now gone and evident only in their alienated traces” (Theatre/Archaeology, 61). But, for Vicuña, Con Cón is also a space for poiesis, a process by which Con Cón can metamorphose into the artist’s Kon Kon in a daring act of cultural reclamation.
On October 21 at 6:30pm, Vicuña will be giving a performance called “A Tongue Within Tongues” in Mabel Smith Library on the Douglass Campus and her exhibition “Water Writing: Anthological Exhibition 1966-2009” is also on display there until December 4th.