“I thought that all this was perhaps nothing more than a way of remembering” Cecilia Vicuña begins her 1991 text, “Entering”:

“To remember (recordar) in the sense of playing the strings (recuerdas) of emotion/ Re-member, re-cordar, from cor, corazón, heart.”

Figs. 13-15. Vicuña, Ceclia, Chanccani Quipu (detail), 2012, ink on unspun wool, bambook, Image Courtesy of the University of Iowa Special Collections

If you make your way into a room full of people waiting to watch Vicuña perform, you may discover that the only seats left are at the front, within a few steps of where she will first stand up, not to read, but to enlist you in the creation of a temporary sculpture requiring audience members to extend their hands to create clasps and swivels for a single thread running through the room, unspooling above the heads of the still-seated, though she has asked you to stand by way of a gesture, then raised your left arm even a little higher than she can comfortably reach, after the thread is attached. The whole time she is chanting. The reading is both focused and open, partially improvised, shifting between Spanish and English, anecdote and song. The thread can be taut or slack but it begins and ends at the podium and remains suspended for the duration of the evening. Afterwards she will sign books, rewriting your name in a way that makes it suddenly new and charmed and odd to you, though you have never really cared for your name until now. And never realized, until now, how bad that felt, not to like it.  

If you sign up for a seat in the University of Iowa’s Special Collections, it is possible to read, or view, or momentarily hold Vicuña’s Chanccani Quipu, which arrives inside a box, where long cords of unspun wool have been knotted to a bamboo dowel. If you slowly pick it up each of the five cords will extend to their full length, arrayed with stenciled letters of the Roman alphabet, floating at the surface of the wool, most often in pairs. 

The quipu is an Andean system of record-keeping at least as old as the Incan empire, when they served as calculators, calendars and keepers of myth. Largely burned and buried during and after the Spanish conquest, their threat was rooted in the opacity of their code, which could transmit knowledge through a system of knots, whose direction, type, and placement at particular points on strings of various colors and lengths all had consequences. Together they told more than the Spanish could see, though they were legible to the foot-messengers or Chasqui who ran them in relays across the tens of thousands of miles of roads and rope bridges holding a world together. Vicuña’s Chanccani Quipu, as we read in the enclosed Instruction Manual & Orientation to Various Meanings: “reinvents the concept of quipu, the ancient system of writing with knots, transforming it into a metaphor in space; a book/sculpture that condenses the clash of two cultures and worldviews: the Andean oral universe and the Western world of print.” It materializes a “command or plea (depending on the tone of voice)” in which “breath metaphorically imprints the unspun wool floating as a shadow.”

Fig. 14

There is no historical or archeological evidence of unspun wool being used for quipu. For Vicuña, the material’s vitality depends on the way that absolutely nothing binds it together. It is a charge of potentiality, “a shaft of light/ running across/ the worlds” of there and here, was and would be, the inevitable and the undone.

Fig. 15

Once, she put her hand to the ear of an alpaca grazing on a slope above Lake Titicaca to touch an adornment of unspun wool that she could see there, which marked the animal as sacred. The slightest part of divinity, offered back as a memory of what it is and was: the softest puff of cosmic gas that birthed the waters of the universe.

Vicuña first left Chile after the country’s democratically-elected government was overthrown by a military junta on September 11, 1973. The coup was backed by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, which also funded cultural initiatives that benefited individual artists like Jackson Pollock, who painted Mural, the most famous work owned by the University of Iowa, and institutions like the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which co-hosted Vicuña’s reading. Which is to say that the hands in that room were already holding something between them that might or might not be named by any number of invocations, prayers, or curses.

The gift of being asked to notice something about what you have been holding, together, is that you are being trusted to keep noticing; to soften or shift your grip and see what might come from attending to the pressure and the possibilities of holding, of being held, differently.

Fig. 16. Vicuña, Cecilia, Chanccani Quipu, Image courtesy of Granary Books, 2012