Mis quipus son tejidos imposibles.
No son hilados ni torcidos, simplemente cuelgan.
Los nudos están sueltos, al borde de caer.
Nada los sostiene, excepto el deseo.
My quipus are impossible weavings.
Not spun, not plied. They simply hang.
Their knots are loose and about to fall off.
Nothing holds them together, except desire.
(from Cecilia Vicuña’s artist statement for Disappeared Quipu)
They hang down, limp with weight, these strands of wool so long and heavy that their ends accumulate formlessly and longingly on the floor. When viewed from a short distance, their luxurious fuzziness is lost, and they look more like melted wax or silicone that has been expertly modeled to give the illusion of knotted fiber. There is a vigorous sensuality to these sculptures, if we could call them that, although they are more of a soft presence than an object.
For this site-specific installation at the Brooklyn Museum, Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña has taken inspiration from the indigenous quipu, a system of knots used by Andean civilizations for record-keeping and documentation of history. At the center of a square gallery framed by neoclassical columns hangs Vicuña’s gargantuan, woolen Disappeared Quipu, its strands projected with images of textiles selected by Vicuña from the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Barely recognizable as such, they scroll furiously down the shafts of the sculpture like a multicolored electric current.
Housed under glass and installed in the perimeter along the sculpture are several traditional quipus, fascinating objects that have been unearthed from the Museum's collection of pre-Columbian art and many of which have not been included in an exhibition until now. In fact, the invisibility of the quipu is integral to Vicuña’s project. She began to explore the form in the early 1970s after learning that Spanish conquerors had attempted to eradicate the indigenous system altogether, threatened by the rows of tightly-wound knots that held codified power. Another thread of disappearance runs through the exhibition: desaparecidos, a charged term in the Spanish language that refers to the victims of mass murder during Latin America’s bloody military dictatorships. It has long been Vicuña’s intention to reverse the effacement of the quipu, but by citing these objects, she conjures so much more that has been lost.
Translating the intimate dimensions of the quipu to the architectural scale of the Brooklyn Museum’s space inevitably means that Vicuña had to make formal and conceptual sacrifices. For example, her loosely-tied, yielding wool does not convey the meticulous quality and sense of involved, intricate permanence that characterized the cords employed in the original system. Although a diagram included in the exhibition walks us through the construction and meaning of different knots to Andean cultures, Vicuña’s loops of fabric do not seem to carry the same specificity. We begin to wonder what the museum’s role was in the conception of this installation. Was Vicuña’s original idea perhaps less accommodating, a little rougher around the edges—especially when we compare this installation to her earlier experiments with the quipu? Consider how adamantly imperfect, how unforgivingly committed to its concept her Quipu Menstrual from 2006 appears, stretching up and down the soil of El Plomo in Chile: stringy, irregular, almost like a liquid. One with the earth. Disappeared Quipu is certainly more aestheticized, and consciously or unknowingly, it is primed for the kind of museum visitor that’s hunting for a photo op (although you could make this point about much of today’s large-scale and performative installations.)
Yet at the same time, its beauty, tremendous size, and indisputable weight produce metaphors that would be lost in a scrappier or smaller alternative, however more authentic that version might be to the quipu’s original intended function (and in fact the artist did experiment with such a form.) What most struck me about Vicuña’s installation was its imposing impenetrability. Unlike Jesús Rafael Soto’s self-professed Penetrables, which invite the viewer to enter and experience the work from within, Disappeared Quipu acts more like a wall or a barrier that prohibits entry. In its quietly stoic threads, we find the embodiment of time as tangible and corporeal, giving form to the passing of seconds like the knots on a quipu.