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!

World Water Day and the Día del Mar

There’s been an odd sequence of themed days this week. Monday 22 March was World Water Day, a day instituted by the United Nations in 1993 which is part of an effort to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The following day, Tuesday 23 March, was the Día del Mar (Day of the Sea) in Bolivia, commemorating the loss of the country’s coastal Litoral department in the War of the Pacific against Chile (1879-83).

This project is about the ocean, rather than about freshwater resources, and isn’t (directly) about Bolivia. So why am I bothering to write about the near conjunction of these two dates? Well, for a start, the more conversations I have with artists, curators and NGO members in Chile and Peru, the more I realise that it doesn’t really make sense to consider the ocean as separate from the other parts of the water cycle. In both of these countries, freshwater resources like lakes and glaciers are under threat from climate change and from activities like mining, and there are a quite a number of recent artistic interventions drawing attention to this issue. Here are two examples: Cecilia Vicuña’s ‘Menstrual Quipu‘, an installation which protested against the effects of mining on the Glaciar del Plomo in Chile in 2006, and the work of three Peruvian artists exhibited online this week to mark World Water Day.

Bolivia’s Day of the Sea, conversely, enshrines a vision of water as territory which can be claimed by a nation: this week, the Bolivian president Luis Arce reiterated the country’s demand for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean and called for a new round of negotiations with Chile.

In short, the sequence of these two very different commemorative days shows us how water is never just one thing (to put it rather inelegantly). It is both a universal resource that transcends national boundaries and, in some forms, highly contested territory. To borrow a phrase from the geographer Jamie Linton, ‘water is what we make of it’. Our social and cultural attitudes to this fundamental element of global ecosystems can and do shape the current state of the world’s bodies of water.

This much is easily visible in Chile, where the current Water Code, which allows for free trading of privatised water rights, has given rise to a range of environmental problems and social inequalities. I’ll return to this topic later this year, as the process of drafting a new Chilean constitution continues.

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Enrique Ramírez, an artist whose work explores the uncomfortable political history of the Pacific in 20th-century Chile.