Legacies of 1968: Cecilia Vicuña

From a series of texts by artists and thinkers, who reflect on the legacy and 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968

Cecilia Vicuña, 1968. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York & Hong Kong

In 1968 I was studying art in Chile; we had begun occupying the universities to demand reform in 1967. Back then, the news intensely covered the civil rights movement in the US and student rallies against the war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr’s murder felt like a blow to our hearts. When news of the events in Paris in 1968 reached us, we felt connected to it because it was part of a worldwide movement. The powerful association between students and trade unions and their fantastic demands were so close to ours, but there was a difference: in Paris they came up with the slogan ‘Power to the Imagination’. That unforgettable graffiti summed up our dreams and went around the world becoming the banner for a generation that wanted a different kind of human culture.

There was definitely a spirit to the 60s, a spontaneous emergence of rage against the violent powers ruling the world. As King defined it, the ‘triple prong sickness’ of ‘racism, excessive materialism and militarism’; that is to say, capitalism and imperialism. For us, the young, that meant unhappiness and sorrow, so our movement was a rebellion against pain and abuse, an explosion of desire, a thirst for love, joy and justice. I remember the joy that came from participating in the decisionmaking process, what used to be called ‘the construction of our destiny’. Our meetings were hard, but our rallies were like parties, full of dance, fun and music. I think that is what was most threatening to the system, our joyful, unafraid bodies on the streets.

The spontaneous emergence of the will to change the world in the 60s was massive and multigenerational. It involved workers, students, artists and intellectuals. It was a wave of discontent so powerful that it could bring people to power, as it did in Chile in 1970. Now we are witnessing amazing movements like #Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, #MarchForOurLives, #NotOneMore, but will they coalesce into a majestic wave, a web of coalitions? For me, Paris 68, the Arab Spring, the indigenous movement and so many others that rise like flowers from the mud, are attempts to save the world or prevent its fall from grace. I am thinking of the descent into hypocrisy, deceit and denial we live with now, when people are inclined to revert to nationalism and other dark forces. Perhaps the crushing of the rebellion of the 60s, silencing its call for justice and love, set the tone for today, when no one knows how to deal with the festering rage of the oppressed. Except now, the oppressed is all of us, the 99%. Maybe Paris 68 was our last chance, but every last chance calls for a comeback, because the raw aspirations that bred it are intact, however well hidden under a weird passivity.

From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview