- "El milk del translate":Poetic Undifference in Cecilia Vicuña's Instan
The last few years have seen a surge of interest in the Chilean-born, New York-based artist and poet, Cecilia Vicuña.1 This growth in attention contrasts with a period of relative underappreciation of her half century of work. As Sabrina Gschwandtner and others have suggested, this was not a passive accident. In part because of the very same characteristics that are now bringing attention to her aesthetic practice—including concerns with indigenous rights, ecological justice, feminism, and socialism—Vicuña's work can be understood as having suffered from certain modes of "erasure" (Vicuña and Gschwandtner). As Vicuña tells Gschwandtner, this fact may be "less about 'her' being erased and more about the systematic erasure of the idea that different fields of knowledge are interconnected—especially where these concern indigenous women's knowledge" (Vicuña and Gschwandtner). Such knowledge and its materialization in art are central to Vicuña's practice.
This is the case across both visual and poetic realms, though the visual and the poetic are not necessarily distinct for Vicuña. That [End Page 473] said, her work with language, poetry, and the book form are important facets of Vicuña's practice. And poetry is an important arena in which she explores the potential for indistinction, interconnection, and undifferentiation. To examine how this operates, this essay will focus primarily on a poemario Vicuña "drew-wrote between 1995 and 2002," entitled Instan.2
Published as a limited edition of 1500 copies, Instan is a slim volume of text and drawings. As the section "carta or end note" describes, the book "is the journey inside the word instan," which it indicates,
is the third person plural of the infinitive "instar," meaning "to urge, press, reply." It first appears in Spanish in 1490, and is associated with political demands. In English it means "to stud with stars."
For me it suggests a movement inward, towards the sta, the inner star "standing" in the verb "to be": estar.("carta or end note")
As the poet notes on her website, Instan, "is presented in three different forms: as line drawings of words exploding in space, as poem in short verses, and as a reflection on its own creative process" (Cecilia Vicuña). These three forms of presentation are divided by five sections: 1. gramma kellcani (the drawings), 2. el poema cognado / the poem, 3. fábulas del comienzo e restos del origen / fables of the beginning and remains of the origin, 4. carta or end note, and 5. dixio nary a diction. The sections are numbered and listed in the contents and appear in the book in this order. The book has no page numbers.
Combining drawings with poetry in verse and prose, Instan is written in at least three languages (English, Spanish, and Quechua) that variously intertwine and indistinguish themselves through Vicuña's characteristic use of punning and wordplay. Many themes and forms familiar to her work are present, but, Instan is overwhelmingly a book about language, and the ways in which language can operate to connect and un-erase the divisions that have been imposed on what Vicuña calls with skepticism "different fields of knowledge" (Vicuña and Gschwandtner).
This essay will focus attention on the ways in which language works in Instan, and elsewhere in Vicuña's practice, in order to examine how Vicuña challenges existing paradigms for understanding what counts as language, what counts as translation, and how apparently distinct modes of expression can be productively undifferentiated. Instan, with its multilingual and multimedia approach, does not [End Page 474] require transparency or fluency. It builds from obstacles and opacities, and it offers a rich set of possibilities for understanding linguistic encounters without an assumption of linguistic differentiation (either among so-called "national" languages or between text and other kinds of matter). Instan, instead, underscores the connectedness of various kinds of knowledge and the modes of communication in which this knowledge is recorded, materialized, and expressed.
Instan, in the first instance
The first section of Instan, "gramma kellcani (the drawings)," is a series of...