In the Andes people did not write, they wove meaning into textiles and knotted cords. Five thousand years ago they created the quipu (knot), 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. The quipu, and its virtual counterpart, the ceque (a system of sightlines connecting all communities in the Andes) were banished after the European Conquest. Quipus were burnt, but the quipu did not die, its symbolic dimension and vision of interconnectivity endures in Andean culture today.
27 metres of pale, ghostly, quipu sculptures hang from the ceiling at opposite ends of the Turbine Hall. Cecilia Vicuña’s Brain Forest Quipu continues her long-standing work with the ancient Andean tradition of the quipu. Woven together from different materials including found objects, unspun wool, plant fibres, rope and cardboard, the sculptures are combined with music and voice that emerge at moments as you move through the space. This multi-media installation is an act of mourning for the destruction of the forests, the subsequent impact of climate change, and the violence against Indigenous people, but also an opportunity to create a space for new voices and forms of knowledge to be heard and understood, as we take responsibility for our part in the destruction.
Vicuña’s reimagining of the quipu contains a number of layers: sculptural, sonic, social and digital. She invites us into the ‘Dead Forest Quipu’, a pair of sculptures whose skeletal forms draw attention to the severity of the climate crisis and the delicate nature of our ecosystems. Their bone-white colour reminds us of bleached bark of trees killed by drought or intentional fire and other dried-out substances like snakeskin. Placing the sculptures at either end of the Turbine Hall, Vicuña creates an alternative architecture binding the two ends of the space. Made from a range of organic materials and items collected from the banks of the River Thames by women from local Latin American communities, the work extends her practice of assembling found, imperfect, and modest materials that Vicuña calls precarios (precarious).
The ‘Dead Forest Quipu’ sculptures are accompanied by a ‘Sound Quipu’ playing from within the sculpture and under the bridge. This sonic element, conceived by Vicuña and directed by Colombian composer Ricardo Gallo, brings together Indigenous music from several regions, compositional silences, new pieces by Gallo, Vicuña, and other artists, and field recordings from nature. The interwoven moments of sound and silence span 8 hours of sonic breathing and symbolise the earth’s life in the face of the loss taking place across the globe.
The ‘Digital Quipu’ weaves together videos of Indigenous activists and land defenders from regions around the world who are using digital platforms to amplify their calls. Shown on video monitors in locations throughout the building and online, the ‘Digital Quipu’ offers political and economic context for the material realities faced by communities in the ongoing struggle to protect and preserve their respective ancestral territories, communities and traditions.
What Vicuña describes as the ‘social weaving’ will extend through a ‘Quipu of Encounters: Rituals and Assemblies’. This series of global events, or ‘knots of action’, connect ancient Andean tradition and contemporary culture, inviting visitors to become active participants in the prevention of climate catastrophe.
Vicuña writes “the Earth is a brain forest, and the quipu embraces all its interconnections.” Brought together, the elements of Brain Forest Quipu emphasise the contradiction and complexity of our time. This entanglement of our bodies – with both the material world of nature and the places that we live – is enmeshed in the hive-mind of technology that connects us with each other, while isolating us in new and often uncertain ways. Vicuña suggests that we are at the beginning of a new time, one where we must first become aware of our collective responsibility in order to change destructiveness, injustices and harm. Through Brain Forest Quipu she invites us to create spaces for imagining and dreaming so that we can bring our heart-minds together to give life to a new forest in a spirit of reparation.
ABOUT CECILIA VICUÑA
Cecilia Vicuña is a Chilean Indigenous mestizo artist poet. Since the late 1960s she has created poems, paintings, sculpture, and film to explore and create alternative systems of knowledge that respect the Indigenous traditions that are a part of her heritage, while finding new ways to form connections with others. Vicuña studied Fine Art in the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de Chile, Santiago, and later completed her studies with a British Scholarship at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1972. After the military coup against former Chilean President Salvador Allende, Vicuña became a founding member of Artists for Democracy while continuing to live and work in exile in London until 1975. Afterwards she lived in Bogotá, Colombia until 1980 and is now based between Chile and New York. For the Hyundai Commission, Vicuña returned to London to work on the installation throughout September and October with a team of local artisans and makers, and participants from local Latinx community.
ABOUT THE QUIPU
The quipu (also written as khipu) is an ancient recording and communication system. It was used by the Quechua people of the Andes from 2500 BCE through to the 16th century at the time of the Spanish conquest. Quipu means ‘knot’ in the Quechua language and consisted of a long textile cord from which hung multiple strands knotted into different formations and in different colours that were able to encode as much complex information as the alphabet. Although the exact meanings behind the knot formations are not now known, it is thought that they were used to record statistics, poems and stories, thereby creating a tactile relationship to memory and the imaginary. Cecilia Vicuña has been exploring and transforming the quipu in her work for over five decades. The knots and materials are unlike the traditional form but inspired by it. Vicuña’s quipus work conceptually as sculptures, poems, performance, sound, and film, where a word, a gesture, or a group becomes a knot.
Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña is curated by Catherine Wood, Director of Programme, and Fiontán Moran, Assistant Curator, International Art, Tate Modern with Helen O’Malley, Curator, Community Programmes, Tate Modern