Review & Commentary
Summer 2000



CECILIA VICUNA, THE PRECARIOUS: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuņa + QUIPOem


edited by M. Catherine de Zegher, translated by Esther Allen (Hanover: University Press of New England, Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 96 pp + 140 pp.

As if to mimic the outwardly opposing nature but inseparable link between poetry and visual culture, this flip-book is partitioned into a critical assessment of Cecilia Vicuña_s
corpus to date and, on the reverse side, into QUIPOem, a logbook and mid-career recounting in verse, transcription and citings, by Vicuña herself on her own varied artwork and performative interventions.

The Precarious: The Art and Poetry of Ceclia Vicuña features contributions by Lucy Lippard, M. Catherine de Zegher, Billie Jean Isbell, Regina Harrison, Hugo
Méndez-Ramírez and Kenneth Sherwood. Together, the essays and interview reveal how Vicuña_s poetry and visual art are interchangeable, each taking its essential grammar from the notion that art- and speech-forms can be intimately linked to natural shapes, and the stories woven to account for their meanings. De Zegher does well by locating Vicuña_s practice as grounded, on one level, in work that emerged out of the Brazilian neo-concrete movement during its second, less constructivist _povera¨ phase (as in the art of Lygia Clark or Hélio Oiticica). Lippard places Vicuña_s work alongside artists such as Jimmie Durham or David Hammons who "respect and rehabilitate in very different ways the discards of mainstream society." And Kenneth Sherwood does a cohesive job of underlining the peculiar crux of Vicuña_s aesthetics: the material nature of her poems_ orality, and the conversation her work performs "between poetry_and what has all too often been defined as its opposite_myth."

Wood, bone, thread, clay shards, matches, nails, shells, cardboard cut-outs, stamps, feathers, rags, tiny containers of all kinds, twigs, and sundry rubber and plastic debris all conspire in a work that enacts_between the city and country, between culture and nature_an archeology whose end results are diminutive markers of presence. With titles like Cemetery, Guardian, or Tree of Life, these tiny flagstones or altars are borne of the question as to whether we are in fact destined to recycle the endless flotsam of an
increasingly disposable world; to reconstruct the constellations found in urban streets or natural vistas_a pressing accountability that speaks of the fragile nature involved in all refiguring.

Vicuña belongs to a tradition that harks back to early modernist poet-painters in Latin America like Xul Solar and César Moro, or to contemporary artist-poet practitioners
like Jorge Eduardo Eielson. Her poetry and art have also featured a series of unagitated political interventions. In a documentary filmed in Bogotá (where the artist lived for
many years after the fall of Allende in her native Chile), Vicuña posed the question "What is poetry to you?" to passers-by, beggars, prostitutes, and policemen. Also in Bogotá, when it was revealed that 1,920 children died each year from contaminated milk_to total indifference on the part of the State_-Vicuña photographed herself tying a yarn
around a glass of milk set out in the street in front of a government building, and then pulled the yarn so that the resulting white spatter of spilled contents resembled a large blood stain.

Because many of these acts remain only in transcription and document, they are forceful reminders that Vicuña_s work, at its very essence, is "a way of remembering"_-as if exile and recall joined to unravel an "autobiography in debris;" as one personal story within a larger narrative:

The No

The first precarious works were not documented,
they existed only for the memories of a few citizens History, as a fabric of inclusion and exclusion, did not
embrace them.

(The history of the north excludes that of the south, and
the history of the south excludes itself, embracing only the
north_s reflections.)

In the void between the two, the precarious and its
non-documentation established their non-place as another

Vicuña_s practice is aware of the ceaseless transformations involved in the passage of commonplace objects and events into the realm of art-making, whereby object equals word, speech equals act, and action equals artifact_-as if to stave off the weathering effects of time and decay. In her writing and art, the transient nature of the physical is made manifest, and the arbitrary nature of the invisible world is revealed: "Desire is the offering, the body is nothing but a metaphor."

Roberto Tejada was born in Los Angeles, California and he presently lives in Buffalo, NY. From 1987 to 1997 he worked in Mexico City, where he founded the English-Spanish annual Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas. His art writing, photography criticism, literary essays, and translations appear regularly in catalogs and journals in the United States and Latin America. GIFT AND VERDICT, a collection of poems, was published in 1999 by the Leroy Chapbook Series.


send comments to

first electronic copyright 2000 poetrybay. 
all rights revert to authors

website comments to