Sonoran Quipu: Cecilia Vicuña’s Map to the Desert Future

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by Kimi Eisele

In the early 2000s—before border politics made it feel too precarious for me—I used to backpack with a friend in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of Sonoran Desert in southwest Arizona full of beautiful and peculiar “things.” A young bighorn sheep. Coils of forgotten barbed wire. And once, nose-deep in the sand, a taller-than-me target dart used by military in practice flights. (Just north of the refuge is training airspace for the U.S. Military.) One morning, while camped at the base of Pinta Mountains, I poked my head out of my sleeping bag, and looked east across the fields of creosote and cactus. Strangely, the mountains I’d seen in the distance the evening before had completely vanished. In their place was a series of islands, aloft in the sky.

That floating archipelago, I later learned, was a form of mirage known as Fata Morgana (named for Morgan le Fay, the sorceress protector of King Arthurian legend), a complex optical illusion formed when rays of light refract through different air temperatures making distant objects—boats, islands, mountains—appear inverted, elongated, or floating.

I thought of that mirage, and other wonders from those extended desert walks, as I wandered Cecilia Vicuña’s spectacular full-scale installation, “Sonoran Quipu” at MOCA Tucson, a poetic geography of 76 sculptures—Vicuña aptly calls them “beings”—assembled from desert plant detritus and man-made refuse. Many of these beings suspend from the ceiling, shifting and swaying in the space, reminiscent of those hovering islands I saw years ago.

Vicuña, a Chilean-born poet and artist, references an ancient Andean technology known as the “quipu,” a system of accounting and record-keeping used across the Incan Empire, from Ecuador to Chile, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. From the Quechua word for knot, quipus were often made from llama wool, and knot placement, color, and material all had significance.

Similarly, each contribution to Sonoran Quipu contains history, meaning, and story. To create the installation, Vicuña culled material from more than one hundred contributions from local individuals and organizations. The assemblages are at once mysterious, whimsical, and familiar.

A weaving of dried agave leaves hovers off the floor, each leaf a platter for seeds. Thick chunks of saguaro carapace hang suspended in the air in a large museum room.
“Respaldo y Saguaro” and other elements of Sonoran Quipu, on exhibit at MOCA Tucson through September 10, 2023

A weaving of dried agave leaves hovers off the floor, each leaf a platter for seeds. Thick chunks of saguaro carapace hang suspended in the air, as if the cactus had been quietly detonated or decided on its own to take leave. A fragment of saguaro skeleton rises from the back of a wooden chair. A configuration of wire and bicycle pedals suggests a kind of simple desert antenna—attuned to what, exactly? A static frequency that’s trying to tell us again and again that humanity and culture are not separate from, but intrinsically part of, nature?

Other elements remain unaltered, intact as the day they arrived, but positioned such that we see them anew or differently. An inverted ocotillo hangs from the ceiling, a suspended tangle of devil’s claws clings to a branch. I fell hard for a small pink prickly pear pad, mounted on one of two white walls in the space. It might be the tiniest “thing” in the room, and it stirred me like an exposed beating heart, delicate and untouchable.

Walking the Sonoran Quipu then is indeed like walking the desert, but with a guide, of sorts: Vicuña’s artistry, reminding me to take note of interconnections and relationships at every turn.

Laura Copelin, MOCA’s deputy director and co-chief curator, told me it was an honor to watch Vicuña, an artist so confident and skilled in her practice, at work. “The way she approached this pile of discards and fragments that we had collected was so decisive, sure-footed, calligraphic,” she said. “She was able to look at all this stuff and then distill it into something fundamental about the place with such embodied skill. I think that’s her gift.”

Born in Santiago, Chile in 1948, Vicuña grew up painting, studying architecture, and writing poetry. After earning an MFA from the University of Chile, she moved to London in 1972. A year later, after Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état and the death (by suicide) of President Salvador Allende, Vicuña went into exile in London. She later traveled and worked throughout Latin America, using public poetic performances to protest profits over people. She is the author of over twenty books of poetry, visual art, and performance.

A close-up silhouette of a "rain seed" on display
One of many “Rain of Seeds” in the exhibit.

In the mid 1960s, Vicuña began creating “precarios,” small precarious sculptures made of debris such as shells, stones, fabric, and plastic—each one a visual poem that considers the “lives” and processes within. Later, Vicuña began to perform rituals and poetic performances bringing people together to explore vocal sounding and to offer healing to one another and to the earth. She calls these sculptures, rituals, and quipus, collectively, “Arte Precario.” Embedded within these works are Vicuñas larger concerns—political freedom, migration and displacement, memory, language, and now, the accelerating impacts of climate change on both culture and ecology.

The work in Tucson is one of several “quipus of encounters” celebrating relational networks. Vicuña has created others at Organizmo, in Cundinamarca, Colombia, the Guggenheim Museum in New York and at the Tate Modern in London. The works depend on many human and non-human relationships.

Over 75 individuals and organizations donated materials for Sonoran Quipu, among them Native Seeds/SEARCH, Mission Garden, Tohono Chul, and BICAS. Vicuña worked with a handful of dedicated crew members and with young artist fellows from Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) and the Green Academy. She carried out ceremonies with local school children and in the places where she harvested materials.

On opening night, a special ceremony celebrated seeds, another form of ancient technology, which appear throughout the exhibit, including in “Semiya (Seed Song),” a video Vicuña made in 2015. It plays (along with two other videos) in a small room at the edge of the installation.

Seeds are a central throughline of Vicuña’s work. Her 1971 poem, “On Behalf of Seeds,” begins with a proposal to then Chilean President Salvador Allende for a “day of the seed”—“seedbeds greening the rooftops and squares into forests and gardens, cities and fields into edens.” Later in the poem, she writes, “Only a collective gesture of love can turn back destruction.”

A broadside of Vicuña's 1971 poem, "On Behalf of Seeds," with drawings of seeds.
A broadside of Vicuña’s 1971 poem, “On Behalf of Seeds,” printed in collaboration with the University of Arizona Poetry Center and Karen Zimmerman of the University of Arizona Letterpress Lab.

At the opening of Sonoran Quipu, patrons were given small “seed cookies,” sculptures made of seeds and clay, to keep, and seeds to shake as a percussive tool.

“It was transformational,” Copelin said. “Cecilia wanted everyone to turn into what she calls ‘seed people.’ She wanted to literally seed this awareness of our connectivity, to the earth, to each other. She wants to seed new ideas and ways of seeing.”

While Covid precautions limited certain activities in the space, Copelin told me additional opportunities for seeding knowledge, relationship, and connection are in the works. “The idea is to gather an assembly—to be a space for organizations and individuals to talk to each other and to learn about each other’s work. To ask, ‘What do you need?’ Cecilia said we don’t ask that of each other enough.”

At the opening, I wandered the installation, greeting friends and acquaintances. A poet friend pressed the “seed cookie” he’d received carefully into my palm. “Here. I think you should carry this for a while,” he said.

An artist friend told me how thrilled she was to see her contribution in the quipu. “What did you offer?” I asked. When she pointed to the little pink prickly pear pad, I applauded her.

Just like the humans in the room, Vicuña’s assemblages have their own energies and personalities: some contemplative, some sly, some plain funny. At one point I stood directly under a strange and intricate dust cloud. When I stepped back, I saw it was a large tumbleweed, frozen mid-flight. I laughed out loud.

A close-up of bean pods and other desert plants hanging from the ceiling.
“Rain of Seeds 1 and 2”
A tumbleweed hanging from the ceiling.
“Big Ball Tumbleweed”

Later, a filmmaker friend leaned into me and said, “Make sure you come back when it’s less crowded. These plant beings will speak to you.”

I took his advice. Without the crowds, I could hear “Canto Semiyo,” a four-channel sound installation of vocalizations, breath, and song created by Vicuña and Robert Gallo. Indeed, the beings spoke to me and to one another. And while I couldn’t always decipher their languages, I could still appreciate them, as I do coyote yips, train horns, and the whisper of wind through saguaro spines and power lines.

Similarly, knowing the name of each piece in the quipu is not necessary. But a glance at the exhibit catalog offers insight into Vicuña’s vision and intention. She is a poet, after all.

My first look at an upended wooden chair, branching twigs rising from two of its splintered legs, and an old pair of pliers, hoof-like, wired to its third leg, amused me. Later, when I read its title—“Venado”—I felt a sudden respect, as if a real deer had suddenly arrived in the exhibit hall, wary and curious.

A knotted root on the wall becomes a small eagle, “Aguila.” In “Lluvia de Corazones,” a mobile of brown palm leaves become a collection of raining hearts. “Rain of Seeds” turn seed pods into sudden rain, and multiple bicycle chains curling across the floor become “Serpientes.”

"Venado,"  an upended wooden chair, branching twigs rising from two of its splintered legs, and an old pair of pliers, hoof-like, wired to its third leg.

I also saw parts of the quipu I had missed on opening night. At the center of the exhibit, on the floor is a delicate spiral made of clay and filled with a collection of colorful seeds, called “Quipu Semilla Espiral.” The clay came from the Santa Cruz River, Copelin told me, where Vicuña performed a ritual offering in the riverbed, then harvested the clay with help from crew members.

I crouched to look closely at the spiral, the seeds it held. The clay was cracking in places, already dry and crumbling. Precarious. I imagine Vicuña anticipated this.

“Whether it is a twig, a stone, a piece of metal, a piece of plastic—everything to me feels alive with history, with decay, with the potential and possibility of dying of dissolving. And for me that is its beauty,” Vicuña says, in a video from Tate Modern.

Focusing on what’s dying and disappearing is Vicuña’s attempt to remind people of the fact that once upon a time, what decayed also regenerated new life. “Now we have created the terminal death, a new kind of death on this planet,” she says in the video.

Vicuña tears things apart or chooses fragile elements, because “that is what might happen to us as a species unless we wake up in time to protect the ecosystem we are destroying right now.”

A hovering seed in a bean pod.
“Hovering Seed Altar” and other elements of Sonoran Quipu; Detail of “Hovering Seed Altar.”

Not long after my visits to Sonoran Quipu, I heard Dan Ferguson, a social scientist who directs Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS), give a talk about the current and future state of the climate in the region. Extreme variability, Ferguson said, showing a photo of monsoon season flooding, then one of a sizeable wildfire. The climate models forecast an even hotter and drier future, a transformation that is already well underway.

“The question is not, ‘What can we do?’” Ferguson said at the end of his talk, “but ‘How are we going to live?’”

Vicuña’s Sonoran Quipu offers one answer. Within it (and beyond), all beings are in conversation. Seemingly disparate ideas and objects and materials come together, find overlap and kinship. The sense here is of quiet and meaningful cooperation.

The work then is not a mirage but a map. A map for navigating a precarious Sonoran Desert future made with materials from the place itself, my own backyard, by an artist attuned to the poetry of the planet right now. A poetry that tells us to keep asking, “What do you need?”

Sonoran Quipu” is on display at Tucson MOCA, 265 South Church Avenue, through September 10, 2023.

Watch “my filmmaker friend,” David Fester’s story from Arizona Illustrated on Cecilia and Sonoran Quipu:

2 thoughts on “Sonoran Quipu: Cecilia Vicuña’s Map to the Desert Future”

  1. Fascinating and informative, but seems to have a deeper and more personal touch. I truly enjoyed it and appreciate and share some of the ideas and concepts that appeared throughout this posting. Keep sending me these types of articles. It is nice o know there is still humanity and kindred sprits in this world.


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