Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 118 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

1 February - 31 March 2019

Review by Deborah Krieger

Cecilia Vicuña’s first major solo exhibition presents a delicate balancing act between the large- and small-scale, and between works that are explicitly political and those that are more personal. Combining textiles, video, found objects, wood, paper, poetry, and more, ‘About to Happen’ is grounded in the artist’s dedication to her craft and to her advocacy, often making the most impact with the most intimate, fragile works.

The linkage of text, image and textile that is central to Vicuña’s practice is best represented in the series of tiny, delicate artist books placed in vitrines along one wall. While several of the artist books resemble the more standard codex form, the most delightful are those that push the boundaries of what we consider books to be. ‘Libro de Errores’ (c.1984), for example, is arranged in a fan-like shape, held together at one end loosely with thread, the pages marked with typos. Vicuña elevates these “error”-laden slips of paper into art objects, though it is worth considering whether these are actual errors that have been recovered and re-purposed or whether they are meant to merely simulate mistakes for the sake of art.

Taking up a large portion of the gallery space all by itself, ‘Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood’ (2017) explores pollution and climate change with a scavenger’s mentality. Dazzling and lively in form, the work weaves together wood, rope, Styrofoam, plastic, fishing line, and other waste by-products that the artist found in the Mississippi River while creating this site-specific piece in New Orleans. In Vicuña’s hands, the “refuse” turns from lamentable to oddly beautiful, almost inviting. Perhaps we can survive rising waters on a mountain of trash; perhaps we might turn the pollution and waste that floods our waters as a life raft, a mechanism for rescue.

While ‘Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood’ draws the most immediate attention, others works in ‘About to Happen’ that reward prolonged study are Vicuña’s ‘Precarios’: “temporary” sculptures of wood, thread, and miscellaneous found items like stones and feathers, which she has been creating since 1966. The ‘Precarios’ range from abstract, whimsical constructions to almost recognisable, miniature objects. Some of these ‘Precarios’ look like toys. For example, one of the works on a low platform mimics a minute swing set, while another dangling from a wall recalls the balance and suspension of a marionette. It’s no accident that some of the more easy-to-interpret objects are hallmarks of youth and innocence, itself a fleeting quality, highlighting the vulnerable who suffer most under autocratic regimes. Just as the ‘Libro de Errores’ turns mistyped text into a book and the ‘Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood’ transforms trash into art, the ‘Precarios’ changes the smallest, most ordinary objects into what the wall text calls “charms or amulets” against the cruelty and fragility of life under fascism in Pinochet’s Chile; Vicuña was exiled from the country in the 1970s.

The large-scale design of the ICA’s gallery space almost risks overwhelming the ‘Precarios’; the soaring ceiling and neutral walls of the white cube threaten to drown the quietly dignified works in its artificial neutrality. From on high, we can look at the low platform or the gallery walls where these objects are arranged and feel uncannily and uncomfortably powerful, as if we could easily destroy these tiny bundles of sticks and suspensions of thread with a sneeze.

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