Intimate Immensity: On Cecilia Vicuña

Sharing the same interest in poetry, writer Barry Schwabsky unspools Vicuña’s own vocabulary, from her words to her works, to consider how her quipus read like “three-dimensional script that cannot in the end be read, but whose effect is felt.”

Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022.  Photo © Tate Photography (Sonal Bakrania)

Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022.

Photo © Tate Photography (Sonal Bakrania)

At least since the time of the Roman poet Horace (“Ut pictura poesis”), people have been debating the relation of poetry to visual art. Cecilia Vicuña doesn’t debate it, she lives ...

At least since the time of the Roman poet Horace (“Ut pictura poesis”), people have been debating the relation of poetry to visual art. Cecilia Vicuña doesn’t debate it, she lives it. To her, “It was natural … for poetry to complete itself in space.”1  Born in Santiago, Chile in 1948, she began practicing both painting and poetry at a young age; her brothers, she says, called her “a factory of madness.”2 

Already when she was still in her early twenties—as the poet and translator Daniel Borzutzky has noted—“as a performance artist, as a feminist artist, as a visual artist, and a literary artist, she was way ahead of her time not just in Chile, but around the world as well.”3  When Salvador Allende’s Socialist government was overthrown by a military coup on September 11, 1973, while she was abroad studying at the Slade School of Fine Arts, Vicuña (like many fellow Chileans) began a life of exile, which took her from London to Bogotá to New York, where she still lives.

Vicuña’s art—sculpture, drawing, painting, performance, poetry—always has a visceral dimension. She herself has suggested that “‘thinking with the body’ would reveal so much more than ‘thinking with the head.’”4  Perhaps that is why she has long been fascinated by a form of writing that does not resemble anything that Western culture ever recognized as writing, namely the quipu, which the people of the Andes used for recording and communicating information—everything from bookkeeping to storytelling—through sequences of knots.

Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022.  Photo © Tate Photography (Sonal Bakrania)

Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022.

Photo © Tate Photography (Sonal Bakrania)



The Spanish conquerors destroyed quipu and tried to wipe out those who were adept in its use, committing a sort of epistemological genocide, and much remains mysterious about it. Vicuña’s effort has not been to produce a historical reproduction of this effaced knowledge. Rather, she considers it “an ancient tactile memory that is like a jumping board for imagination.”5  Sculptural, but more than sculpture, Vicuña’s quipus are a kind of instinctive three-dimensional script that cannot in the end be read, but whose effect is felt.

These sculptural quipus can be enormous, but no matter the scale, they always bear a sense of intimacy, for they contain a multitude of small entities that invite close and curious attention. Other works of Vicuña’s, perhaps made of what might seem nothing more than the debris of everyday life (twigs, wire, bits of fabric, feathers, and so on) can be quite modest, almost miniature, yet they project a cosmological connection. In either case, I think of Gaston Bachelard’s phrase, “intimate immensity.”6 

To find this paradoxical yet hyperbolic scale, the artist relies on intuition, or rather on embodied forms of knowledge that may or may not have been consciously learned. For example, she explained to Danielle Brock that the searing scarlet Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens), which she made for Documenta 14 in 2017, was “an impossible construction because it is made of unspun wool:”7 

Nothing holds it together. How can you make it go up ten meters without it breaking? Because there’s no answer for that, I dream of the solution. So where is the practical imagination? It’s in the training to focus your attention on what’s the most impossible, invisible, undoable.
Cecilia Vicuña, 2021.


Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022.  Photo © Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)

Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022.

Photo © Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)



The title of Vicuña’s Hyundai Commission, a new work for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Brain Forest Quipu, is already in itself a kind of poem. It’s a pun, but of the most profound sort. Once having heard it, it’s impossible to ignore the truth of the layered metaphor it contains: a quipu is an extension of the brain, and the brain is a kind of rain forest—that is, a kind of multilayered organic system whose complexity is so great as to be almost unfathomable, and whose multivalent connectivity is fostered by an atmosphere saturated with life-giving moisture. It’s no accident that, at least since the appearance of cyberpunk in the 1980s, we’ve become used to the term “wetware” as a synonym for the brain. Here, even dry materials are immersed in fluidity, and as for those of us who venture into this terrain, we find ourselves to be—in a line Bachelard quotes from the poet Jules Supervielle—“Habitants delicats des forets de nous-memes”: sensitive inhabitants of the forests of ourselves.8 

It is in this forest of the collective self, perhaps, that we will find the resources to preserve our future—and with it, our past. It’s not surprising to learn that Brain Forest Quipu, a pair of massive hanging assemblages of mainly white material, incorporates items found by “mudlarks” scavenging the detritus of history that’s constantly washing up on the banks of the Thames, which runs next to Tate Modern. The flow of the river is both forgetting and memory. Some of it abides in this brain forest.




1. Cecilia Vicuña, “Precarious,” translated by Anne Twitty, in New and Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña, edited and translated by Rosa Alcalá (Berkeley: Kelsey Street Press, 2018), p. 87.

2. “‘We can wake up if we wish’: Autumn Royal Interviews Cecilia Vicuña,” Cordite Poetry Review (May 1, 2017), http://cordite.org.au/interviews/royal-vicuna/.

3. Daniel Borzutzky, “No, No, and No: The Art of Cecilia Vicuña,” in New and Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña, p. xvii.

4. Quoted by Borzutzky, Ibid., p. xx.

5. Danielle Brock, “In the Studio: Cecilia Vicuña taps into instincts to imagine solutions for the impossible,” Art21, https://art21.org/read/in-the-studio-cecilia-vicuna/.

6. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas (New York: Orion Press, 1964), pp. 183-210.

7. Brock, Ibid.

8. Bachelard, p. 187.

Barry Schwabsky is the art critic for The Nation. He also writes regularly for such publications as New Left Review and Artforum (as a co-editor of international reviews). He has taught at Maryland Institute College of Art, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University, and Goldsmiths College (University of London), among others. His most recent books include collections of poems, Trembling Hand Equilibrium (Black Square Editions, New York, 2015) and literary criticism, including Heretics of Language (Black Square Editions, 2018). In 2016, Verso (New York and London) published The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present, a selection of Schwabsky’s art criticism from The Nation.