CUTBANK REVIEWS: Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña

By Cecilia Vicuña Edited and translated by Rosa Alcalá

Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012

Review by Will Cordeiro

The various documents in Cecilia Vicuña’s Spit Temple capture the aftereffects and trace elements given off by a poetics of life and performance that cannot be bound within the covers of a book. Like star-charts and astrolabes, these documents act as instruments to triangulate the relative position of milky paths and star-crossed vacancies, supernovas and mythic constellations, the very ebb and flow of the heavens and earths that move around us. This “dossier” of essays, transcripts, poems, photographs, appreciations, remembrances, letters, notes, autobiography and other texts points toward a poetics of transit, which forever ravels and reworks its materials, materials which are not so much words themselves as they are the political nexus that words imbricate us in and that words might help us to reweave. Meanings for Vicuña are always translated, shuttled from one place to another, fraying apart yet held together in a state of compromise—words, bodies, whole cultures are arranged in networks, which depend on human interaction and collective struggle. Poetry is not fixed, it’s an organized vertigo, a shudder passing from one node to another, under or over, handed on, threaded along: a wave rather than a point. A music of the spheres.

In the performance transcripts, Vicuña breaks words apart, dissolving them into wails and laments, or reduces them to etymological fragments, revealing the hidden histories they contain. She slips from one language to another, making multilingual puns. She blurs and blends all languages down into their primal babble. She sacrifices intelligibility for a more visceral contact. She reconstitutes words, lines, and fables into larger contexts, connecting events from the past and from different cultures with those of her most immediate surroundings. She listens. She allows the silence to pervade. She braids a fabric of various colored strands, knots and stitches, empty spaces, threads, and ties. She arises from amidst the audience, she shakes seeds in a gourd, she shows slides of artifacts and videos, she makes a cat’s cradle, or she weaves literal strings between her spectators. For this reason, her performance transcripts are impossible to excerpt: each small narrative yarn may appear unexceptional. Rather, she surprises in the way that she loops them together, leaping from one reference to another, overlapping disparate stories to make a new whole.

For example, she conceives of our own corporeal identities as types of textiles: nerve fibers, strands of DNA, umbilical cords, hair, limbs, lineages in a family tree, the threads of the Fates. The body is an excremental temple, a vestment of seething tempos. Vicuña creates a tapestry of storytelling in which she finds associations and significance between such things as the ancient Incan quipu (knots and cords that comprise a ledger and signifying system) and the internet, colonial exploitation of natural resources and the upward rising mist from a waterfall, the desaparecidos and holes in the ozone, the Chilean military coup that happened on September 11, 1973 and the American 9/11. She twines ideas from far-flung cultures, enchanting and improvising ecstatic rituals, whispering new myths, entangling her audiences into her spells, a Scheherazade who recognizes how everything hangs by a precarious thread.

Spit Temple also contains a substantial autobiography, told in brief anecdotes and snapshots that read as prose poems, written specifically for this collection. Vicuña recounts her first efforts as a child creating marks, a time when painting and writing shared a common, as-yet-undistinguished element, when art-making was tactile and immediate. This early memory is a moment of fusion between body and text, sign and feeling, to which her artistic process seems to continually return. She tells of the polyglot grammars surrounding her in Chile, political uprisings, performing in theatrical events and dances, writing manifestos, forming friendships, holding protests, traveling abroad to London and New York, meeting famous artists and writers, loneliness and exile, encountering censorship, and giving performances in the turbulent political climate of the sixties and seventies. This background illuminates the urgency, the eroticism, and the utopian thinking that inform her work in today’s global context of cyber-culture, terrorism, deconstructions of race and gender, sweatshops and multinational corporations.

One simple entry from her autobiography, entitled “Ground Arena, Santiago, 1954” reads in its entirety: “My father built a trapeze in the patio. Hanging upside down, my brother and I became acrobats, specialists in an inverted worldview.” Vicuña takes the point-of-view of the playful revolutionary, looking at things from a subversive angle and asking what happens if the established perspectives are overturned. Another entry, titled “Bank of Ideas, Santiago, 1970” states:

When Salvador Allende was elected President, some of my friends were among his collaborators, so through them I sent messages and suggestions: Just as  there are banks for money, blood, and seeds, there should be a Bank of Ideas to gather and study the best ideas for the betterment of Chile.
The idea did not prosper.

Her own work, however—whether it takes the form of performance art, videography, street protest, visual art, poetry, installation, happening, or a hybrid of these different media—continues to be an evolving “bank of ideas,” a counter-economy in which the exchange of transformative concepts and metaphors between people and cultures creates its own value through human connection and emotional prosperity.

“Censorship,” Vicuña says, made her “an oral poet.” Yet, the oral and performative nature of her poetry is also based on the presence that such art demands as much from its spectators as from herself: just as she revives the older tradition of troubadours and shamans, her work reinvents its own texts to face the living complex of circumstances in situ for each performance. She is tuned to the vibratory pitch of the room, the humming energy field where every person’s mental theatre is involved in a communal matrix that establishes a collective one. Tone, she reminds us, derives from the Greek for the “thread” of a voice. Her work is polytonal, employing shrieks and drones, spasms, dream-languages, a susurrus of broken syllables. But she uses these sound objects to induce a trance of listening in her audience so that they are more aware of their environment, and, hopefully, of the vectors pressing upon them from the larger world. Ultimately, she asks, “Who is performing: the poet, or the audience?”

In fact, she calls her performances “quasars” because they are “quasi form.” They refashion themselves, and us, remaining ever unfinished, flashing and fissile. In making her own performances susceptible to the oblivion of spoken—and embodied—rather than written communication, she nonetheless hopes to recover the “work that history had erased.” She recalls a Mexican immigrant in New York who had been buried in rubble, Chilean protestors whose bodies were dropped in the sea, or victims who were burned in the Towers. These people, too, were censored, silenced, disappeared. The myths she tells, then, are an act of recollection, a gathering of cultural memories that literally speak and witness against the warped views of officialdom.

Several brief essays written by academics and fellow poets are included in this collection, as well. Some offer recollections of their own, descriptions of specific Vicuña performances the author witnessed along with the personal, emotional impact the author recalls, sometimes many years later, having experienced. Other essays take a more theoretical approach, situating Vicuña’s indigenous cultural references, the plurality of her media, or the superimposition of revisionary and improvisatory forms in terms of contemporary practice.  Even the most theoretically-inclined essays, though, are fundamentally concerned with describing and contextualizing the performances and art, allowing someone who was not present a glimpse into the atmospheric tangle of webs, both literal and figurative, that Vicuña employs for her poetic ritual dramas.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that it gives one a persistent sense of its own inadequacy. That is, despite the multiplicity of documents the dossier contains, these written texts remain merely artifacts or explanations, at best acting as transcriptions rather than a living voice, coming after-the-fact instead of responding to the moment. Why is this archive curated as a traditional book rather than, say, an interactive website or a gallery installation? The best answer I can give is that traditional books tend to reach audiences that might never have a chance to experience Vicuña’s work in other ways—writers, artists, and academics, especially, still rely primarily on the printed page.

In this case, though, the transcripts resist the page, harboring the resources of print to re-enact their performative contexts. The words are bolded, italicized, enlarged, reduced, or written in different fonts. At times, the page is littered with blanks and ellipsis. Sentences jump-cut and cut-away around the field of paper in a-grammatical structures. Hand-written notes are included, which contain bubbles and arrows, sidelong drifts or scribbles. Marginal comments fill in spaces of action. Translations in the footnotes sometimes give insight into a crux or play on words, which the original audience would not have had available. Still and all, the performance texts in Spit Temple fail to fully conjure the vibrancy of the performances themselves—the words alone often do not perform, they simply reference a performance that has, as it were, already disappeared. Perhaps this is inevitable, the limitations of translating from one medium to another.

Paradoxically, though, our sense of the book’s incompleteness—of a vanishing presence near the margins—may, in fact, also be the book’s richest testament: the best translations frequently make us aware of their status as translations, relaying their transformative power even as they help us see them (and ourselves) as compromised, awkward, and insufficient: likewise, the texts in Spit Temple impel us to fill in their gaps and appropriate their remainders. They become materials to be reworked and rewoven yet again.

In one performance, Vicuña tells of the Nazca lines that the ancient peoples of Peru created over the earth, which had been mistaken for irrigation canals for more than 2000 years. When two travelers in the 1950’s looked down on the lines from a mountain, they discovered (it happened to be the solstice) that the marks aligned with the setting sun.  Vicuña says, “for an instant they became like the ancient astronomers priests having an / ecstatic instant watching against the lines / aligned with the earth and their own thoughts.” She goes on to say that these Nazca lines “ARE irrigation canals… / for the thoughts / and the imagination.” Similarly, the lines of the text in Spit Temple create fertile alignments between historical and cosmic events hitherto unrecognized, inviting us to look at them from a new vantage point. Vicuña’s performance texts wait for us to revise and perform them again, fabricating new bodies, spaces, voices. Their residue of elements seeds the imagination with an inception of thought and action, as they allow us to collectively anticipate “weaving as the birth of light.”


Cecilia Vicuña is a Chilean poet, artist, and filmmaker. The author of twenty poetry books published in Europe, Latin America, and the U.S., she performs and exhibits her work widely. At the forefront of conceptual, impermanent art and improvisatory oral performance, her work deals with the interactions between language, earth, and textiles. Since 1980, she divides her time between Chile and New York.

Rosa Alcalá is the author of two collections, Undocumentaries and The Lust of Unsentimental Waters. She has translated the work of Lila Zemborain and Loudres Vázquez, among others. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing and Bilingual MFA Program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Will Cordeiro is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Fourteen Hills, Sentence, and elsewhere.