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Sunday, 23 June 2013

Cecilia Vicuña: Precarious prayer

Cecilia Vicuña’s exhibition at England & Co begins with a series of paintings from the 1970s in which religious icons are replaced by personal, political and literary figures.

Vicuña learned this technique in the late 1960s from the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington and was initially inspired by the naïve and subtly subversive images made by 16th Century indigenous artists in Latin America after the Spanish conquest when they were forced to paint angels and saints for the Catholic Church.

Salvator Allende, Fidel Castro and Karl Marx simply replace the Christian saints in these images; a reversal of the images indigenous artists were forced to paint by the Catholic Church and an acknowledgement that the Marxism of Latin America in the ‘60s and ‘70s was, for Vicuña, more compelling than Catholicism. Yet, as these works are also deliberately naïve with their subjects depicted within a utopian setting, they also indicate the fragility of the freedoms which had been won and which the Chilean coup d'état of 1973 - when Allende’s life was lost, along with 43 years of Chilean democracy - brought to an end.

Vicuña writes that her artistic practice changed as a result. Prior to the coup d'état she had each day made an object in support of the Chilean revolutionary process. Post coup d'état her objects supported the resistance against the dictatorship.

These objects, composed of feathers, stones, sticks, and other found materials, are known as ‘Precarios’ because they are literally precarious - “they can’t endure, they may fall apart by themselves.” They show their socialist character through their poverty and by the fact that “they can be done by anyone.”

Not only are these objects beautiful in and of themselves but they also reveal the beauty of what is thrown away and ephemeral. As such, they are also deeply spiritual. Vicuña has explained that: “Precarious is what is obtained by prayer. Uncertain, exposed to hazards, insecure. From the Latin precarius, from precisprayer”:

"These materials are lying down and I respond by standing them up. The gods created us and we have to respond to the gods. There will only be equality when there is reciprocity. The root of the word 'respond' is to offer again, to receive something and to offer it back. 'We are made of throwaways and we will be thrown away,' say the objects. Twice precarious, they come from prayer and predict their own destruction. Precarious in history, they will leave no trace. The history of art written in the North includes nothing of the South. Thus they speak in prayer, precariously."

Vicuña finds deep personal connections between Taoism and Andean culture but her art of exile and its spirituality also resonate strongly with aspects of Christian understanding and practice, for example, Peter Rollins’ interpretation of St Paul’s claim that Christians are the refuse of the world. Rollins suggests that “Christians are the de-worlded … the part of no part, the community of outsiders … learning from, leaning toward and reaching out to the people who live day to day as the trash of the world … [who] lay down the various political, religious and cultural narratives that protect us from looking at our own brokenness and allow it to be brought to light.”

Would that we genuinely lived in the way Rollins suggests! Vicuña’s art provides an object lesson in visualising such praxis.


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