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Dancing Amongst Forests Gone


Dancing Amongst Forests Gone
Cecilia Vicuña’s Brain Forest Quipu
at the Tate Modern

Review by:


APRIL 2023

My visit to Cecilia Vicuña’s exhibition Brain Forest Quipu at the Tate Modern was an immersive experience. Although situated in the open plan space of the Turbine Hall, I was pulled into a far more intimate and inward place. Suspended from the ceiling are delicate bleached materials that seem to be splitting apart, a ghostly forest composed of plant fibres, twigs, sheep wool and other washed-up cloths and items knotted together. Looking up, I felt small beneath what appeared to have once been an exuberant ecosystem. I felt as if I was in the presence of history. The soft white structures seem to store mysterious memories, stories that are dynamic and hold important lessons about the past, but also, perhaps, clues for understanding the present and the future.

An image bottom up of an interpretation of the forest created by Cecilia Vicuña for an exhibition at the Tate Modern

The sculpture ‘Dead Forest Quipu’ is accompanied by a ‘Sound Quipu’, a musical composition coming from within the forest. I felt haunted by it, the songs – prayers, perhaps? – and sounds of life as though I was in the presence of the remnants of plentiful existences long gone. The ‘Sound Quipu’ was created and recorded by Vicuña and Colombian composer Ricardo Gallo together with other artists, bringing together indigenous music and sounds of nature from several unknown regions interlaced with moments of silence. I am immersed in a contradiction; listening to the sounds of life, while looking at the bleached forest that symbolises a dead (or dying) ecosystem.

Quipu means ‘knot’ in Quechua. Quipus are a system of encoding and representing information through knots. They are a form of storing what we today might call ‘data’ and were used to track administrative data (census, taxes) and narratives to preserve life stories. Quipu Andean encoding systems were used for almost 5,000 years until they were destroyed during the Spanish conquest and the colonisation of Abya Yala1. In the video ‘Your Rage is Your Gold’, Vicuña adds that knots are a gathering of energy, so everyone who has been connected to the Quipu has been connected to a field of knowledge, love and understanding that goes beyond their present time and connects them to other times (both past and future) simultaneously.

Brain Forest Quipu was created in collaboration with artists and local communities of diasporic women from Abya Yala, incorporating materials collected from the banks of the river Thames2. Vicuña invites us to see ourselves as part of something bigger: ‘a poem in space, a way to remember, involving the body and the cosmos at once’3. Her installation embodies the very idea of an intertwining of beings and things and calls on us to see, feel and listen as we experience ourselves being embedded into these knotted forests and the memories they hold.

image of individuals standing under a tall ceiling from which materials have been hung to mimic the appearance of forests.
Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022. Photo © Tate Photography (Sonal Bakrania)

There is a third Quipu, the ‘Digital Quipu’ which brings another visual element to the mix. A screen shows short films of indigenous activists from various regions around the world who use filmmaking as a strategy to communicate their struggles and their aim to defend their lands. One short film, for example, portrays the efforts of the Sepik River community in Papua New Guinea in protecting their river from a proposed mining, energy and infrastructure project called Frieda River Mine, which claims to be a ‘nation-building opportunity’. Yet, in the end it is just another example of ecocolonialism4: an Australian company believes it knows best what the local people living with the Sepik River need and how the opportunities for ‘a transformative sustainable development’ would make them more ‘skilled’.

Watching the films reminded me that the environmental crisis cannot be separated from colonial histories and modern logics of development. The violent imposition of one dominant way of seeing the world – that is, as a natural resource to be exploited for economic gain – onto other many ways of being and relating is present in the Turbine Hall. Standing there, I thought of Vanessa Machado de Oliveira’s book Hospicing Modernity, which I was reading the day I visited the Tate. Machado de Oliveira tells us what we collectively and unconsciously know: that ‘the enjoyments and securities promised by modernity cannot be endlessly sustained’5. The message is that modernity is dying and that the ways in which we live and think of the world are expiring. Her book prepares us for coexisting differently, for the times when those enjoyments and securities are gone. Vicuña’s installation, like Machado de Oliveira’s book, is, to me, a call to see the death of modernity as an event that we need to prepare for. Modernity lives inside us, so something inside us must die to allow space for new ways to emerge.

But how do we do this? How can we see this death as a space which opens up to something joyful and hopeful? Is it possible to see the devastation of ecosystems – what this installation is communicating – in a different way?

While I felt gloom in my heart, I noticed a young boy dancing and laughing beneath the Quipu Forest, his father chasing him around. Gloom gave way to hope, but also a sense of responsibility looking at that child roaming around the forest ghosts laughing like a kookaburra . My first reaction was to think why would the species regarded as the smartest in the world, the most rational and logical (yes, us human beings), keep bringing children into this world? But then, this thinking only makes sense wearing the hat of modernity because modernity tries to make sense of everything. There might be another way of seeing this predicament of whether to bring children into the world or not, and that might be to see it as perhaps the most radical act of hope and resistance. Or as an existential urge to go on with life and the realisation that we are quite similar to other species that keep propagating, germinating and working together amongst the chaos and destruction surrounding us.

In the Turbine Hall, Vicuña encourages us to imagine a myriad of possibilities while immersed in the landscape she has created for us to experience. Some of those possibilities are more hopeful than others. Perhaps you can see what this landscape invites you to think and feel, while standing underneath the composition of knots made up of precarious yet noble materials, with the landscape of sounds and images which surrounds them.

Cecilia Vicuña’s Brain Forest Quipu is on view at the Tate Modern London until 16 April 2023.

ADRIANA SUÁREZ DELUCCHI is a Geographer and currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at IAS. Her work analyses institutions and environmental dynamics from a bottom-up perspective to challenge and address the marginalisation of rural and indigenous communities from environmental governance.



Proofreading by CATHERINE STOKES

All images: Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu Installation View at Tate Modern 2022. Photo © Tate Photography (Sonal Bakrania)

1 Abya Yala is today a widely used term to refer to the continent of ‘the Americas’, which is a colonial name referring to the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (Américo Vespucio). Abya Yala means “land in its full maturity” in Kuna language. The term was used in a lawsuit the Kuna won against a development project and was later incorporated as a political tool towards decolonising the name imposed on this continent and its people as ‘Latin Americans’, which is not their original identity as they were not ‘Latin’ before 1492. More information about this can be found here.
3 Ibid
4 This is a concept used by Jessica Hernández in her book Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science (pp. 41-67).
5 Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s wrongs and the implications for Social Activism. Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2021), p. xxii