Cecilia Vicuña’s Water Writing: Anthological Exhibition, 1966-2009

“Water Writing” is a retrospective of Cecilia Vicuña’s visual works—it’s billed as an “Anthological Exhibition”—located in the Douglass Library galleries in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Pieces range from the early precarios of the 60’s to a brand new site-specific installation called Melinko Lauen / Water Cry / Cascada Que Llora which consists of cascading banners of unspun wool affixed to the beams of the library’s light-filled rotunda.

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This installation establishes a new limen, a new threshold that one must walk around in order to pass into the library’s main sections and access the books—it is an interesting intervention that re-establishes the connection between textile and text, a connection at the root of Incan literacy.

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While the Douglass Library gallery space is a bit small and awkwardly split into two sections that flank the main entrance, “Water Writing” nicely demonstrates the range of Vicuña’s work—from colorful portraits to prints of famous performances (like Vaso de Leche/Glass of Milk which protested the death of children in Bogota from contaminated milk) to bilingual visual poems drawn on the gallery walls.

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While the term “anthological” may evoke notions of a standard, institutionalized text (like how in some quarters The Norton Anthology is, itself, a derogatory term), Vicuña’s work, as seen above and below, challenges the normativity of both the book and the page and disrupts our linear left-to-right reading practices. I particularly like the “not”/”knot” pun in the concrete poem below as the quipu is, of course, constructed out of knotted threads.

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The portraits include a wonderful self-portrait that cleverly plays upon the artist’s name as well as homages to important Chilean women like Gabriela Mistral and Violeta Parra (below).

Violeta Parra


“The wild vicuña is sacred to indigenous Andean cultures…Legend has it that vicuña are born at the sources of springs, and the fiber made from their wool is symbolically associated with the thread of running water, or the stream of life.”
—from Lucy Lippard’s “Spinning the Common Thread” in The Precarious: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña (1997)

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In “preparation” for this exhibition (while I was taking the train from New York to New Brunswick), I read the poem “Quipu” by the Chinese American poet Arthur Sze and was particularly struck by the fourth section which offers a series of dazzling questions that are somewhat reminiscent of Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Here are some that I found particularly apt:

Who touched a quipu and made it explode into dust?

Did spun wool delineating the corn of the Incas obliterate in a second?

What incipient white fades into pink?

Did the knot of her loves jaguar in an instant?

Who can unravel the spin of elegy and counterspin it into an ode?

Whose carded cotton fibers are these?

~ by Michael Leong on October 8, 2009.

One Response to “Cecilia Vicuña’s Water Writing: Anthological Exhibition, 1966-2009

  1. […] Within Tongues” at Rutgers University, where she is the visiting artist for the year.  His photographs of her exhibit “Water Writing” also seem to capture the range of her visual poetics and exhibition […]

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