Cecilia Vicuña in Venice

The Biennale di Venezia, perhaps the world’s most renowned art exhibition, opened on Saturday 23rd April, and is strongly marked by a concern for ecology and more-than-human life.

The Biennale’s central show is titled The Milk of Dreams, after a book by the Mexican Surrealist Leonora Carrington, and the show’s curator Cecilia Alemani has said that she was guided by questions about human relationship with the planet: ‘How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and other life forms? And what would life look like without us?’

Among the many artists exhibited is the Chilean Cecilia Vicuña, who has also received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Alemani writes that ‘For decades, Vicuña has travelled her own path, doggedly, humbly, and meticulously, anticipating many recent ecological and feminist debates and envisioning new personal and collective mythologies.’  

Vicuña’s work is difficult to categorise, ranging as it does from painting to poetry, video installation and performance. But it is all animated by a fascination with alternative (often non-Western) forms of thinking, and how these might change our relation to the world.

I’ve written elsewhere, for instance, about how her ‘documentary poem’ Kon Kon presents the Pacific Ocean as an active collaborator in her precarios, ephemeral installations on the beach that are swept away by the incoming tide. And when I come to write the book that emerges from the Reimagining the Pacific project, Vicuña’s work will undoubtedly feature prominently.

Vicuña may have travelled her own path for many years, but recently international recognition has been coming thick and fast. Last month, Tate Modern announced that Vicuña will create the new site-specific commission for the famous Turbine Hall, to be unveiled in October of this year. Something for those of us in the UK or nearby to look forward to!

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