If you’re going to visit Cecilia Vicuña’s About To Happen at the Henry Art Gallery before the show’s imminent closure on September 15, I recommend taking a six-year-old with you. If you don’t know a six-year-old, at least bring your inner child. Because the “Woah! That is AWESOME! Can we go down there?” that exploded from my young companion when we first spied Vicuña’s installation from our perch on the mezzanine put me in the perfect frame of mind for experiencing the show. Vicuña has clearly retained the love of knick-knacky objects and bits of color and string inherent to most six-year-olds, but she’s woven into her seemingly childlike construction two very grownup and ironic truths: the haunting knowledge that someday we all will die, and the equally haunting notion that many of the modern objects we create will live on for thousands of years after us. A fifty-plus year career has honed Vicuña’s ability to render unsettling truths with childlike veracity.
About to Happen is an exhibition which serves as a kind of catalogue of the Anthropocene-the recently named geological era we now inhabit. Defined by the human domination of the planet, the Anthropocene is likely to be distinguished by the massive amounts of non-biodegradable trash that finds its way into all of the planet’s oceans. Vicuña’s work includes materials of this sort in various stages of disintegration- human detritus including scrap wood and fibers, tangles of plastic rope and even a tiny plastic tiger. The small works, Los Precarios, feel like they could’ve been made by some future civilization trying to make sense out of the leftover bits of this one. She reaches back and forth across centuries as well, referencing the Incan knot-language with Burnt Quipu, an installation of dyed wool draped from floor to ceiling, the lengths of which the viewer is invited to “gently move along” and among. Moving inside Quipu, we can compare our own civilization with that of the Inca, speaking as we do in the vernacular of products produced through global supply chains which allow us to absolve ourselves of our impact on the hands that produce them and the planet which must absorb them.
By contrast, human disappearance is a theme which tangles itself in among Vicuña’s work- from rainbows of decaying plastic cord of to the disembodied voice that viewer’s activate when they enter under a mobile-like installation, a piece that has the impact of a personal cathedral. The exhibition literature states that “Vicuña’s practice began at the water’s edge with her first ephemeral artworks in Concón, Chile in 1966,” and even after several decades one can imagine the entirety of the show washed out to sea with a single large ocean wave. The fragility of these sculptures make reference to the artist’s years of exile, a time in which thousands of her countryfolk literally vanished under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and who were referred to as Los Desaparecidos.
Vicuña’s art introduces heavy ideas: mortality, meaning, and the dubious legacy of humankind. That her touch is so light only makes these ideas more poignant. But if the plastic momento mori of our day do not over-ripen and burst from their inner life force, returning to the organic matter from whence they came, what does this say about the fruits of our labor? Working outside of the natural order, we create our own ghosts. About to Happen calls us first in the language of childhood- deceptively simple to the point of innocence. But as the show unfolds, it leaves an indelible residue of truth.