The child​ is made of unspun wool, ripped linen in a tubular hollow, rope unlacing from its braid, knotted gauze and sleeves of protective net pulled apart into rows of diamonds, as tall as the hall. Some strands pool on the floor, others drift overhead. At the other end of the room, the mother is more elaborate: her strings twist around ladders; plant fibres form wheels and trapezes. Diaphanous fabric is interwoven with rope. A white fleece is pricked with holes. One tail is encased like sausage. Feathery wisps of cotton are fastened to shells, hag stones, branches bearing berries, flint, glass polished by the river, broken terracotta, a round of driftwood, a handle or knob, and the bones of small animals, ascending – they seem to be ascending – to the sky.

The Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña is interested in art as protest and in protest as spectacle, but she seems as insistent on possibility as on past wrongdoing. This is a gentle environment in which to broach extinction. First, the enveloping size of the quipus that hang, like hair or jellyfish, from the steel beams of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Then their pale colours, which suggest bedsheets, ivory, bleached coral reefs. The debris becomes apparent as you get closer – carefully chosen from the banks of the Thames by her collaborators, a group of local Latina women. The wall text expresses thanks to sheep. Vicuña’s installation Brain Forest Quipu has many parts: the two sculptures (which she calls Dead Forest Quipu), a soundscape (Sound Quipu), videos about the work of Indigenous communities around the world (Digital Quipu) and a number of performances by Vicuña herself (Quipu of Encounters).

Quipu is the Spanish spelling of the Quechua word for ‘knot’. Before the Catholic Church ordered their destruction at the Third Council of Lima in 1583, quipus were widely used by people in the Andes. The practice of recording information through patterns of knots is thought to date back thousands of years: quipus logged trial and census data, work schedules, calendars, music, directions, payments and sacrifices – a spatial and tactile conception of the world. Those capable of reading them were persecuted by the Spanish (the accounts we have come from the Conquistadors). Vicuña’s first quipu, in the 1960s, was called The Quipu That Remembers Nothing. Disappeared Quipu and Extermination Quipu have followed. The quipu proved a useful metaphor for Vicuña: what was once a way of making sense of the world became a way of marking time and mapping loss.

Comparing Vicuña’s installation to two earlier Turbine Hall works (Doris Salcedo’s crack in the floor and Anish Kapoor’s huge red sculpture), one critic wrote: ‘I doubt many students today will feel inspired by this enormous yet underwhelming pair of laden drying racks.’ There is a suggestion of the laundry room here, though that might not be a bad thing. Bunching and imprecision are accepted. Vicuña prefers not to hide her framework: the loose mesh doesn’t completely conceal the microphones, for example. The walls of the Turbine Hall echo with the music and recordings of the Sound Quipu: insects, birds and other forest noises. On the day I visited, this soundscape was accompanied by echoes from the Tanks, the cellars next to the hall that once stored oil.

‘Beach Ritual’ performance (2017). Photo: Natalia Figueroa. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin.

‘Beach Ritual’ performance (2017). Photo: Natalia Figueroa. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin.

‘My brothers would say “Cecilia is a factory of madness,”’ Vicuña told an interviewer, ‘because I was constantly creating this or that form which is formless at the same time.’ Her formless forms have remained consistent, and so have her preoccupations – ecology, feminism and ‘the incredible coherence’ of Andean culture. In a 2018 interview with Julia Bryan-Wilson, Vicuña said that ‘the physical act of making actions, exhibitions, objects and so forth … cannot change anything if it is not loaded with the clearest intent, and the most intense orientation, towards touching other forms of awareness.’ She was born in Santiago in 1948, to a lawyer father and a tour guide mother who sang boleros. At the age of six, she was taken to a museum where she saw the mummy of a boy, recently discovered near a glacier in the Andes, displayed in a glass freezer. ‘They had turned it into an “exhibit”, an “object”, but I saw that it was me, exactly like me.’ Much later, she learned that this figure – huddled over, his hair in two hundred braids – was almost certainly a ritual sacrifice. She also discovered that he carried a pouch filled with red threads.

In her telling (Vicuña is a compelling, and at times contradictory, self-mythologiser), she began making art after an epiphany in January 1966. She was seventeen and planning to study architecture. She found a stick on the beach, and planted it in the sand. When it was vertical, ‘I had woven my place in the world.’ She drew a spiral. ‘The sea completes the work, erasing it.’ The notion of the self dissolving back into the environment, submitting to natural cycles, is the kind of ending Vicuña likes. Shrines formed from reclaimed detritus, precarios (as well as ‘precarity’, the word is linked to ‘prayer’), recur in her work. She has kept a diary since she was young, writing thousands of words a day in a file she calls El diario estúpido. Her first poem was published in 1966; twenty books have followed. Early on, her poetry was conceived in architectural and spiritual terms, ‘an oral temple’, as she puts it, a way into ‘the sacred space of metaphor’; in time, the metaphor unfurled: she now describes her poems as quasars, or quasi-stellar objects – forms in the process of becoming. But there’s no trajectory that can easily be traced.

After Salvador Allende (a friend of her grandfather’s) was elected in 1970, Vicuña felt that there needed to be a ‘revolution of the senses’. ‘Research Project’, a poem written in 1971, begins: ‘I propose we take a trip/around the world,/to be officially designated:/“Socialist government/research project”.’ The researchers would identify the best kissing technique and ‘without delay bring it back/to our socialist country,/which will be land of The Kissers’. That year she filled a room in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes with autumn leaves, enlisting the help of the city’s gardeners. In the painting Janis Joe from the same year, Angela Davis climbs out of a prison window into a world created by Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker. In another painting, La Comegente, Vicuña becomes a great reclining goddess opening her mouth to eat a queue of bad people and fertilising a new-born city below. (The version displayed in Venice had to be repainted from memory after the owner lost it when moving house.) It was painted using a technique Vicuña learned from a research trip to visit Leonora Carrington in Mexico City in 1969: a liquid outline on a thin, single-colour background, filled in with ‘plenty of white’ and then colour last of all. The original inspiration was the undermining of European subjects and conventions by Indigenous artists: ‘The Europeans had forced the Indians to paint these colonial flat images on a flat background, but the Indians subverted them to create their own Pachamamas … angels with guns, and things like that.’ In Dream (The Indians Kill the Pope), Paul VI is shown at prayer, surrounded by a cast of figures in traditional dress. In another work, Fidel Castro flaunts one naked foot and sticks out a finger so that Allende can pass him a butterfly. Karl Marx, in a halo of roses, stands, arm across his chest, in a turquoise landscape of lilac trees and naked women. Lenin wears a violet velvet suit. There is an anarchic spirit at work here, but also the suggestion that the success of political movements can be measured by the degree to which they enhance sensory experiences.

‘Dead Forest Quipu’ (2022).

Vicuña wasn’t impressed by London when she arrived, aged 24, on a British Council scholarship to study at the Slade: ‘I never undid my suitcase.’ But months before she was due to return, Allende was overthrown. Vicuña spent the next three decades in New York, sometimes visiting Bogotá to research Indigenous culture and design stage sets. In a poem from 1982, she describes herself as a ‘migrating animal’ – she also portrayed herself as a rat, a weaving spider, a dog. The paintings continued to appear, in the same flat, colourful style: Vicuña as a hybrid vicuña (the Spanish word for a relative of the llama) or a human alongside a black panther, a small cannabis plantation, some cypresses. She attended Black Panther Party meetings in New York and painted herself holding a contraceptive pill – ‘an object I hate very much’.

In 1979, after dairy distributors in Colombia mixed paint into the milk supply, resulting in the deaths of almost two thousand children, Vicuña staged a performance piece (which involved tipping over a glass of milk using red thread) on the pavement outside Simón Bolívar’s house. In 1981, when Pinochet began to privatise Chile’s water supply, Vicuña wove a long silken thread over the Antivero river so that it criss-crossed from rock to crag to branch over the water. On the day of the Chilean presidential elections in 2006, Vicuña made a Menstrual Quipu in the mountains to petition Michelle Bachelet, who became the next president, to prevent the sale of glaciers near Santiago to a mining company. Womb Quipu, created in 2016, is made of unspun wool (in Andean symbolism, the cosmic gas from which galaxies emerge) dyed red. In her book La Wik’uña, drawing on her research in the Andes and translated by Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine, Vicuña writes that ‘Quechua, the sacred language, is conceived as a thread.’ She adds that it might derive from q’eswa: ‘a rope made from twisted reeds’. In this schema, where both speech and textile are components of a complex world system, a shaman is ‘the one who ties’, Watunasimi is ‘the woven language’ that ‘creates the world’, and Chantaysimi, or ‘beautiful speech’, is ‘embroidered’. A poetic investigation into the root of the word ‘consciousness’ is laid out on the page as warp and weft, with lines on the different axes: ‘The encounter of finger and thread is torque and dialogue.’ On another page, the same etymology is transformed into the wheel of a wind or watermill. What do these games seek to establish? Vicuña offers us only playful, or cryptic, responses: ‘Everything is falling apart because of a lack of connections.’

Then there was the performance. At 4 p.m. a pile of branches appeared on the bridge over the Turbine Hall. The crowd around me included a group of radical anthropologists who had brought vegetation and blood in a glass jar, teenagers declaring ‘ritual time’ into their phones, a Docklands poet and a small boy holding a cardboard sign that read ‘DON’T HARM PLANTS’. As Vicuña led us through the ritual, she played tricks to quieten us, singing in her small voice. We followed her in picking up one of the branches from the floor, shaking it and humming and howling to the river. The river in this case was the Thames; the branches symbolised the ancient forest over which London was built.

As the light outside began to fade, the soundscape became whistling and eerie. We were guided into dances, given sticks to tap together, taken around the hall in a conga. Someone handed out cushions. We were asked to take turns discussing healing, compassion, guardianship, allotments, deforestation, the memory of water, lithium mining in the Atacama desert, the linked etymology of ‘true’ and ‘tree’, the Brazilian election and so on. I watched the Digital Quipu with some children who were completely absorbed by its accounts of mercury poisoning and being sucked into a dredge as well as by the aerial pictures of the Amazon, green shot through with red.

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