United Kingdom, London, Tate Modern, Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Hyundai Commission, until 16 April 2023
On now until 16 April 2023
Textile can be used for so many purposes. For Cecilia Vicuña, it is a protest and discursion on the plight of indigenous people, our collusion in the rape of the rainforests, and the subsequent impact of climate change. For Vicuña, textile in the form of Quipu— knotted lengths of cloth of all kinds — is nothing less than a vehicle affording a relationship to the cosmos.
In the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, two, 27-metre-high cloth sculptures, like strange forest lianas, waft delicately in the breeze. Brain Forest Quipu, the seventh annual Hyundai Commission, is made in tones of white through off-white, from skeins of wool, lengths of rope, fishing net, balls of twine, scraps of corrugated packing paper, and lengths of woven cotton and wool— all gently unravelling, pierced by holes redolent of a moth feast. Many are embellished with mudlarking finds from the Thames: clay pipes, shells, wood, and bone. They are a ghostly allusion to a dying world. This installation extends Vicuña’s practice of assembling found, imperfect, modest materials that she calls “precarios,” meaning precarious.
The sculptures are amplified by her soundscapes, co-authored with composer Ricardo Gallo, including birdsong, pan pipes, human song, indigenous music from several areas, and a forest hum. The sounds continue over eight hours, without repeating. They symbolise the earth’s life, in the face of the losses currently happening across the globe. In addition, strategically placed around the building, a series of digital installations give context to the realities now facing indigenous people. Discreetly placed, the installations gently underline the political agenda Vicuña is addressing, letting the sculptures speak for themselves. Vicuña, a Chilean artist, was born 1948. She studied at the Slade, and now lives in both the United States and in Chile. Vicuña has been telling stories through quipu for more than 50 years.
Quipu were used by the Quechua people of the Andes–who did not write —from 2,500 BC until the 16th-century Spanish conquest suppressed their culture. Each quipu consisted of a central cord with many secondary strands. These served to record histories, statistics, and poems (see SELVEDGE issue 68). They offered a tactile relationship to memory, the imaginary, and the universe. According to Vicuña, a quipu is “a poem in space, a way to remember, involving the body and the cosmos at once. A tactile, spatial metaphor for the union of all.”
Vicuña seeks to use alternative knowledge systems, that respect traditional indigenous ones, to form new connections with visitors. This is a lot to demand from textile, but even without an explanation, the two sculptures draw the visitor in to a ghostly,delicate, almost perilous world of mystical connotations. Usually working in colour, the gravity of her commentary here deserves less joyful tones. Many visitors seek to engage with the work through touch, though, sadly, that is forbidden here. Tate Modern have provided two boxes of sample materials for visitors to touch, but these offerings seem something of an afterthought.
Whilst the installation could have taken greater advantage of the size of the Turbine Hall, nonetheless it remains moving; this is a poetic and absorbing cry for engagement that may yet prove more effective than violent protest. I have not seen so many people, so engaged, lying on the floor of the Turbine Hall, since Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds installation, in 2010.
••• Corinne Julius