A hand sketching with a pencil on a white paper.

Still from Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu | Tate Perspectives Film

Artwork © Cecilia Vicuña, Film by Hyundai Motor Company

Maria Balshaw, Frances Morris, Catherine Wood, and Fiontán Moran discuss Cecilia Vicuña’s path to her Hyundai Commission, Brain Forest Quipu, at Tate Modern.

“Art isn’t just a mirror. It can reflect back to humanity a view of the future.”

Frances Morris is discussing the experience of bringing Cecilia Vicuña’s Hyundai Commission, Brain Forest Quipu, to life at the Tate Turbine Hall. Artlab sat down with Morris alongside Maria Balshaw (Director, Tate), Catherine Wood (Director of Programme, Tate Modern), and Fiontán Moran (Assistant Curator, International Art, Tate) to uncover what they learned from Vicuña. Watch the video below and read on to hear more about how Tate’s directors and curators helped realize Vicuña’s two 27-meter tall sculptures, sound installation, and videos.

Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern

When Brain Forest Quipu opened last October, Vicuña’s commission presented the ecological realities of today in the museum, going public in an unexpected, poetic manner. “You can never anticipate audience feedback,” Frances Morris continues. “People off the street may not be engaged in the concerns of the artist around ecology. And planetary emergency is the way Cecilia combines materials in ways that generate questions and thoughts.”

Yet while Vicuña’s piece is urgent, it is also delicate—pulling together the individual viewers into a collective, participatory group. And with participation comes collaboration. “Everything we think the world needs to do to survive is collaboration,” says Morris. “Nobody knows more about how to work with other people and take effective action than Cecilia.”

A central way Vicuña connects people, Morris understands, is through her use of materials that “speak of manufactured things we throw away, speak of our cultural lives, and speak of centuries old activities.” And when Tate’s team came together to realize the piece, it reminded Morris of the feeling of family. “When you’re living through very, very tough times, you need that feeling of solidarity. It's a wonderful metaphor for not just making a great work of art, but telling an important message and persuading people to come along with you.”

Catherine Wood, Director of Programme, Tate Modern

Vicuña's monument to material and community began with a single sheet of paper. As Catherine Wood notes, Vicuña began the project with a picture of the Turbine Hall, made a “squiggly drawing” on it, and offered to work with Tate on identifying the materials to realize the piece together. Once Vicuña arrived, she transformed the Turbine Hall into a living studio with fabricators, community members, and Tate staff working on-site to assemble the piece.

As staff and community members sat together platting ropes, unfurling cotton, and enjoying the time they shared making work, Wood was particularly drawn to the orchestra of hands crafting the quipus. “There's a choreographic architecture of people's attention that she creates, with how they stand around the sculptures.… She's registering a world that’s all about change, and evolution. And rather than trying to hold on to something as a static object, it’s almost porous.”

Wood also noted Vicuña’s dedication to having fun—even when she’s building a piece that considers our changing climate. Laugher, friendship, and community are a part of the process just as much as the materials and message. She recounts Vicuña saying: “Joy should be at the heart of all practice. Otherwise, you're doing it wrong.”

Fiontán Moran, Assistant Curator, International Art, Tate

Building upon Vicuna’s material connections to communities past and present, Tate’s Assistant Curator of International Art, Fiontán Moran notes the artist’s drive toward inclusion, global action, and change. “Cecilia wants to focus on Indigenous people and the threats to communities in Latin America, and connect those stories to similar threats and situations across the world. As a Chilean, she feels strongly about many things taking place in Latin America—and yet she is also keen to show that this is not just a story that takes place on one continent.”

With Vicuña’s Digital Quipu—a series of videos placed across Tate Modern’s building that highlight organizers working across the globe to protect and preserve their ways of living—the artist wants to “ensure that there is a broad range of voices,” Moran says. Moran believes her hope is to ensure viewers “become more actively aware and hopefully try and do something to contribute to their causes.”

The physical space of the Turbine Hall creates an ideal architecture for connectivity and personal agency, a place where “different things can be connected to other things with which they wouldn’t normally be associated.”

“She really treats every material, as well as every person, with a great deal of respect,” notes Moran. “I think the project speaks to that sensibility as well.”

Maria Balshaw, Director, Tate

For Tate Director Maria Balshaw, part of Brain Forest Quipu's power lies in its ability to scale from material to site and from to urgent call to action. “What most surprised me about Cecilia's work is that, although the materials she uses are quite lightweight and ephemeral, once assembled and hung from the ceiling of the Turbine Hall, there’s a great power to the work and to the way that it flows into the space.”

This unexpected interplay of levity and gravity calls to mind the role of the museum itself. “To my mind, museums are always thinking about the long term. We hold our collections not for a couple of years, but for hundreds of years. And so the commitment to think about the care and stewardship of our planet naturally becomes part of our duty. We need to think about how these works will be carried forward for future generations.”

For Balshaw, Vicuña’s piece both encapsulates this commitment to the future and obligation to the present day. “For an institution like Tate, which continually learns from contemporary artists, we need to respond to the issues of our time. There is an urgency for us to consider the art that needs to be made in this moment…. We must always be the home for artists: a place where they can find space and sanctuary to explore the ideas they need to address.”

To offer that space and sanctuary, museums require trust and support. Tate Modern Director Frances Morris finds this collaborating with Hyundai. “We begin with mutual respect. They have confidence in us that we will take the right kind of risks, but they will come to the absolute cliff face with us. This has been completely extraordinary, and allowed us to do some really challenging projects—projects that have proved to be fundamentally significant.” Projects like Cecilia Vicuña’s Brain Forest Quipu.

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