Artist Cecilia Vicuña’s Sonoran Quipu reassembles the desert

The installation at Tucson’s Museum of Contemporary Art is made from the landscape.

In 1972, the artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña strung blue yarn around her bedroom in the coastal city of Con Cón, Chile. “Tired of my room’s normality I have criss-crossed it with a blue thread ... taut and geometrical as a sky to communicate with other worlds,” she wrote in her Stupid Diary. Using the thread to draw together the elements of her room in new ways, Vicuña rearranged and reconstituted the significance of the space she inhabited, allowing it to connect to a belief system that could transcend her earthy surroundings.


Vicuña’s Sonoran Quipu, on view at Tucson’s Museum of Contemporary Art, has this effect on the landscape of southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. In late 2022, MOCA invited members of the Tucson community to contribute “detritus” to the installation. They circulated a set of “responsible collecting guidelines” and set up folding tables that were soon piled high with everything from tumbleweeds to broken toys. Over the course of a week in January, Vicuña fashioned the donated material into Sonoran Quipu. The installation fills the main hall of the MOCA, an expansive concrete space that was originally a fire station, with sculptures fashioned out of those found objects.

Sonoran Quipu is the latest in Vicuña’s decades-long exploration of the quipu as a form, dating back to the blue thread in her bedroom. In Quechua, the language of many of the ethnic groups Indigenous to Andean South America — the area that stretches from what is now southern Colombia to Chile and northern Argentina, encompassing much of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador — the word “quipu” means “knot” or “to knot.” It also refers to an ancient record-keeping device: Instead of using written ledgers, Andean societies made knots on fiber cords to keep track of numeric information, such as tax, census, or calendar records. Such quipus can include just a few strands, or thousands; they can be color-coded, or not.

One of the pieces in the Sonoran Quipu fashions a traditional quipu form out of Sonoran materials, threading chile seed pods on strings of different lengths and hanging them from a long smooth tree branch. But the rest look nothing like historical quipus. In Vicuña’s interpretation, the quipu encompasses far more than its utilitarian function. Beyond numerical values, a quipu can hold “the watercourses of the Andes, or the connections between land and sky,” said curator Laura Copelin.

Installation view, Cecilia Vicuña: Sonoran Quipu, MOCA Tucson, 2023.
Photograph by Maya Hawk, copyright © MOCA Tucson, 2023

For Vicuña, the quipu also isn’t limited to its physical dimensions: It extends over time and through actions. As part of Sonoran Quipu, she led workshops with children and teenagers in Tucson, including making a “prayer for native desert seeds and also adopted foreign seeds,” a red fiber spiral dotted with black, brown, and yellow seed pods.

Like those seed prayers, the individual pieces that make up the whole of Sonoran Quipu are at once simple and intricate. Vicuña named each individually; each has its own identity, but they all form part of the whole of the quipu. They blend the human-made and non-human worlds, though the balance tilts clearly in favor of elements drawn from the natural environment. The sculptures hold themselves together with wire so thin that at a distance, it looks like thread. It’s staggering that objects so delicate can command such presence, but that paradox is part of what is so captivating about Vicuña’s work.

Dominating my view as I entered the space, the 18-foot spike of an agave seed sprout rests on the broken halves of two faded red buckets, now a soft but still-bright pink, as though the bucket halves were pallbearers mourning the massive agave.

Other pieces hang from the ceiling. Four dry, curling stalks of oversized grass plants reminded me of the whale skeletons displayed in natural history museums. One tumbleweed hovered high up, like a small cloud; another floated low to the ground, with a weave of dry agave leaves beneath it. Eight thick flakes of cactus bark dropped down in two columns. The bases of palm frond segments hung flattened open, symmetrical as pelvic bones. The papery, V-shaped stalk of a dried plant hangs horizontally, with devil’s claw seeds hung all over it, either attacking or adorning it.

Installation view, Cecilia Vicuña: Sonoran Quipu, MOCA Tucson, 2023.
Photograph by Maya Hawk, copyright © MOCA Tucson, 2023

On the white wall at the far end of the gallery, Vicuña had mounted objects with little intervention, letting their textures and contours stand out. One, a twisted root segment, Vicuña calls “Eagle Woman,” according to Copelin. A trident-shaped cholla cactus skeleton shares space with a branch whose specific, delicate shape reminded me of the sinuous line of a river on a map. Another dry branch resembles a cartoon bird flying swiftly through the air, with a slim, flat body and a thick, feathered wing. All of them are gray or brown except for a pink, heart-shaped cactus penca. I felt as though its alarming fluorescence recalibrated my vision, making me notice how much color was present even in the earth tones of the branches and roots.

The sculptures spill out into the garden in front of the museum, where a child’s Spider-Man bike seat popped out of the blanket of gravel like a mushroom, and another tall, concentric sculpture made from scrap metal caught the wind. There is also a sound installation, in which Vicuña makes noises resembling bird calls, and a video loop showing past sculptures being washed over by a tide.

Suspended, unspooled, and put back together, the components of the southern Arizona landscape take on a new density. Stepping back into the secular, non-quipu world, where the tree branches and agave florets and yellow grasses were back in the places assigned to them by Renaissance urban planning ideals and wastefulness rather than artistic and spiritual vision, I wondered whether I could keep that feeling, to hold onto the edges of leaves and the colors of desiccated cactus bark in a way that reminded me of how much meaning is all around us — and how special it is that the earth offers it up so freely. Sonoran Quipu is a lesson in seeing: both in deepening our attention to the world around us, and to our presence within it.

Installation view, Cecilia Vicuña: Sonoran Quipu, MOCA Tucson, 2023.
Photograph by Maya Hawk, copyright © MOCA Tucson, 2023

Caroline Tracey is the climate justice fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.