Cecilia Vicuña: the Chilean artist who has conquered the world

Last June I arrived at the Guggenheim in New York knowing very little about Cecilia Vicuña. Apart from the fact that a couple of months ago she had won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale and that she was now the first Latin American artist to hold a solo show in the iconic rotunda of the New York museum. But she had never seen her work. The first thing that surprised me was that the exhibition installation was really impressive, and it took up a large part of the building. Also striking was the number of people who attended, which without overflowing, was very large. And everyone spent long minutes admiring her work. I watched all this with some amazement and a big question in my head: At what point did this Chilean artist conquer the world of global art?

The data is overwhelming. She was the first Latina to receive the prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Something that, according to her, she commented to Third, took her by surprise. “It was totally unexpected, something that will affect my life and my death.” He didn’t have much time to assimilate that, because from there she went on to conquer another summit: the Guggenheim. And as if all this were not enough, in October he will install his work in the mythical Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. In other words, an unrepeatable year.

The day after my visit, an extensive article about the life of Cecilia Vicuña was published in the New York Times. It was not a passing note, nor a criticism of her exposure. It was a central text of that day. As if it were something predestined, I immersed myself in reading it and after two paragraphs I found the key to what I was looking for. “After decades on the fringes of the art world, at 74, the Chilean artist has become the most acclaimed artist of the year.”

Reading it left me with a double sensation. First, Cecilia Vicuña this year has surprised everyone. Second, that her life is really incredible. One of those stories that one only sees in novels or in the lives of other great characters. Without further ado, it reminded me of the story of Patti Smith, which she herself describes in the book we were kidswhere he talks about his arrival in New York, with 20 dollars in his pocket, going hungry and sleeping in squares or abandoned places.

Cecilia Vicuña arrived in Manhattan in 1980, without any plan. With very little money in his pocket, his best food was tiny slices of pizza. Soon after, she ran into an Argentine painter, who invited her to live in a half-built loft in the TriBeCa neighborhood. It was something very precarious, but at least she had a place to spend her nights, since during the day her partner used the apartment as a study and she had to go out. She began working on the banks of the Hudson River, where she made her first installations, with materials she found on the shore.

42 years have passed since then, and during almost all that time, his life has been spent outside or on the margins of the world of traditional art. So much so that she was not represented by a prestigious gallery until 2018 –Lehmann Maupin– and it was that year when she was only able to give herself the privilege of having a studio for herself.

Cecilia Vicuña receiving the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia.

I was able to ratify all this when the August issue of “Wallpaper” magazine appeared, whose cover, in a limited edition, was designed by Cecilia Vicuña. A privilege that is not rare, but that the publication only reserves for the great ones.

Like the NYTimes, the English magazine is very blunt about its history: “For most of the last 50 years, Cecilia Vicuña, artist, poet and activist, has been ignored, censored, marginalized and ridiculed. Now, in 2022, she is having what is known as the Her Moment.”

He was born in 1948 in the commune of La Florida, into a humble but highly intellectual family. He always remembers that the houses were made of adobe, but they had a library with texts in five languages.

It had a very promising start. While studying art at the University of Chile, he published his first book of poems. At the age of 23 he made an installation at the Museum of Fine Arts. From there he won a scholarship from the British Council to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in the city of London, where he was living when the Military Coup occurred in Chile. She there she became an activist, carrying out a series of actions in favor of human rights. On the artistic level, that time “Wallpaper” describes it as “poor in material, but rich in ambition”.

Cecilia Vicuna. Photo: William Jess Laird.

From there he moved to Colombia for a few years, and then embarked on his adventure in New York.

Before winning the Golden Lion of Venice, the most important event of her career happened in 2017, when she was selected to exhibit at Documenta 14, the largest and most important contemporary art exhibition in the world. There she began to gestate the germ of what would come later and that has its explosion in 2022.

It’s kind of chaotic to get all the attention you haven’t had in 50 years all at once.”, says the Cuban artist Teresita Fernández, referring to Vicuña, her great friend. “She comes in very strong and very fast,” she adds.

But Cecilia Vicuña sees it differently. Being invisible made her work very freely. She was never tied to anything and she was able to experience perhaps too many things: painting, singing, writing, cinema, installations. Something that explains in part that few understood how to classify it. She was always something of an oddball, even in the world of conceptual art. And neither did she give in or adapt her path.

Regarding her current moment, she admits that she was very surprised by the transversal recognition that her work has today. “Undoubtedly, I did not expect it, because it is the tradition of nearly two thousand years of patriarchal tradition that no one listens to women, because in general women are not heard,” she said in July in these same pages.

And regarding the idea that the international press has conveyed that this is the peak moment of her career, she disputes it. “Who knows that in advance? No one. And if one imagines that he goes to a summit, he goes lost”. Thus, more than arriving, it seems that Cecilia Vicuña is only the beginning.

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