AC Education
3 min read/Published On: September 5, 2023/590 words/


Walking through the Tate Modern’s great Turbine Hall en route to the Cezanne exhibition, I encountered Cecilia Vicuna’s ‘Brain Forest Quipu’ – two sculptures that hang 27 metres from the ceiling. They are woven together using a range of organic materials, including driftwood, bones and shells mudlarked from the Thames at low tide, unspun wool, plant fibres, rope and cardboard to evoke the look of bleached-out trees and ghostly forms. The quipu is an ancient measuring, recording and communication system of knotted textile cords used by the Quechua people of the Andes for thousands of years until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The feelings evoked by these two hangings are ones of sadness at something dead – a language and possibly a people that have long lost the life they once had. And yet their majesty remain – even in such a stark environment as the Turbine Hall.

I know nothing of the Quechua people and why they used knots and folds rather than numbers and words. My fantasy is that with living in the Andes where communities would have been cut off from each other by the nature of the landscape many different languages would have evolved – so they developed this ‘universal’ rope language which was used primarily in commerce.

It made me think of one of our foster children; Jake (not his real name) had found an old piece of rope and was trying to whip me with it on a day when he was feeling particularly stressed. I managed to catch the end of it – and a tug of war ensued. At one point, I commented that I could feel his hot rage coming down the rope to my hands – and it was burning my hands. He was pleased about that. Gradually the heat subsided and I reflected that his anger was cooling. It was the beginning of a new way of communication between the two of us. If he was angry or upset about something he would invite me upstairs – or outside in the garden – and we would have a tug of war along the landing or on the grass, and I would give words to the feelings that I felt were being transmitted down the rope. Jake came from a family where his parental figures didn’t use language very much – and there was a lot of violence. In the absence of a mum who attuned to him and taught him the words for his emotions – and for hers – he had learnt to survive by acting out his emotions – so doors were slammed and food was thrown. But when we developed our rope communication system Jake was launched on his journey to using words rather than behaviour to let me know what was going on for him. We soon didn’t need a tug of war; we just sat on the floor and each held one end of the rope while I spoke about the feelings that I thought were coming my way down the twisted fibres of the rope. Sometimes he would wrap the rope around his hand, pulling me closer to tell me something that he hadn’t told before. And sometimes I was surplus to the process and he went outside in the garden, using his rope to slash leaves off a tree in his efforts to discharge his feelings about the unfairness of something in his life. We never did progress to the subtleties of knots, however! But he did keep the rope for a very long time.

Martha and Rachel