View from the top. Lo Barnechea, a bourgeois neighborhood in Santiago.
During the month of March I was invited by R.I.C. (Residencias de Investigación Curatorial, a project initiated by curator Alexia Tala and collector Pedro Montes) to visit Santiago, Chile for one week to research the city’s cultural scene, including artists, alternative spaces, and museums. I have always been suspicious of the brief curatorial research trip and its subsequent text -a format now common among the transnational curatorial elite- fearing its inevitable becoming into a travelogue of superficial accounts and glib first impressions.Although well aware of the perils of the flash visit and the impressions that this kind of format can produce, I nonetheless felt compelled to write a brief account (albeit limited in scope) of my experience in Santiago (and Valparaíso) and the conversations that ensued there.
In many ways Santiago reminded me of San Juan and many other cities in Central and South America that I have had the privilege to spend time in; cities where culture is clearly not a government priority, and where most of the population remains oblivious to a subdued form of systemic oppression that besieges them on an everyday basis. Like many other countries that have suffered a violent dictatorship, Chile quietly bears the traumatic scars of the Pinochet years (1973-1990). Today a conservative consumer society, Chile was a laboratory for neoliberalism back in the 1970s, way before Thatcher and Reagan introduced its concepts to the political mainstream. Milton Friedman, a main figure of the Chicago School of Economics, wrote a letter to Augusto Pinochet after visiting Chile with his wife, prescribing an economic plan that would increase income inequality and concentrate wealth on the upper echelons of society. The plan, later developed in detail and called “El Ladrillo,” focused on the privatization of national corporations and the implementation of free-market fundamentalism. Friedman’s “shock treatment” would prove to be a fatal blow to the poor and working class population.
Palacio de la Moneda in Santiago, site of the September 11, 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet and supported by the United States (Nixon Administration).
Chile had one of the longest military dictatorships in South America, one that many would argue is still in democratic transition. Although it is common knowledge that Pinochet stepped down from the Presidency in 1990, thereby ending the military dictatorship, the situation is more complex. Even after the first democratic elections in 1989, Pinochet remained in the government ranks, first as Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army (until 1998) and later on as member of the Senate (until 2002). Even after his alleged exit, the economic and political system inherited by Pinochet still goes on strong; Chile has a binominal electoral system and upholds the constitution developed under his rule, among other structural and linguistic legacies.
Neon sign at Barrio Lastarria. True, but the past must not be forgotten.
My visit to Santiago coincided with the judicial resolution of the Penta Case, where top executives of Empresas Penta were indicted for charges of corruption, money laundering, and tax fraud. In a country where people rarely speak up about these issues, and where corruption largely bypasses the law, it is the hopeful beginning of a new era for the Chilean justice system.
Before my trip to Santiago, I had read excerpts of the book Copiar el Edén which was recommended by my host Alexia Tala. Edited by Gerardo Mosquera and published in 2009, it presents a survey of contemporary art from Chile since 1973.
The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (MMDH) was founded in 2010 to narrate the Pinochet years and remember the many victims who suffered persecution, torture, and death (mainly through media documentation and witness accounts). It also features contemporary art exhibits and an archive. Like many institutions of its kind, the museum focuses on how events unfolded during and after the military coup, but falls short in addressing the more profound and systemic reasons why it happened.
With access through the main plaza in front of the museum, a site-specific permanent work by Alfredo Jaar titled La Geometría de la Conciencia sits underground as a separate work that demands the visitor’s undivided time and attention. Only fifteen people are allowed to go in at the same time. Once inside, the viewer stands in total darkness for a few minutes until the back-lit silhouettes of both the disappeared and the living appear to then subsequently disappear.
The persistence of memory and the revision of histories are important themes and methods for many artists, including those who only know of the dictatorship through oral histories, media footage, and institutionalized history. For these artists, remembering becomes a subversive and political act of transgression. Following these interests, I met with young artists Renata Espinoza Roa and Javier Rodriguez, both of whom deal with subversive political histories. During our meeting, Javier introduced me to a book he was reading: El pensamiento politico de Jaime Guzmán, written by Renato Crisi. Guzmán was the ideologue of the Pinochet constitution, which protected human rights violators and is surprisingly still in vigor. Recently a monument was erected to commemorate Guzmán. It sits in front of the United States Embassy in Santiago. Other artists with whom I spoke with include Bernardo Oyarzún, Claudio Correa, and Alejandra Prieto.
Some of the most important commercial galleries are in the Vitacura neighborhood. These include Galería Isabel Aninat, Patricia Ready, Animal, and XS Galería. Vitacura is one of the most expensive areas of Santiago, and where most of the city’s luxury boutiques are located.
D21. Above, solo show of work by Pedro Lemebel.
Chile has a handful of contemporary art collectors. Most art buyers prefer to acquire pieces that match their couch, considering contemporary art that is research-based as unnecessary and aesthetically displeasing (a condition that also rings true in Puerto Rico and many other countries in Latin America). Notwithstanding this general trend, collector and patron Pedro Montes (R.I.C. (Residencias de Investigación Curatorial) is one of the few exceptions. Aside from R.I.C., Montes initiated the project Departamento21, a contemporary project space and publishing house focused on contemporary practices.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Santiago.
Like many other countries in Latin America, the institutional landscape in Santiago is discouraging. Among these institutions are the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC), both of which run with limited government support.
Metales Pesados is the oldest art-focused library in Santiago. Founded and run by Sergio Parra, it publishes books on contemporary art, criticism, and visual culture. During our meeting over coffee, Parra explained that literature and the written word has always played a major role in visual culture. Being aware of Chile’s strong literary tradition, including Pedro Prado, Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, José Donoso, Nicanor Parra, and many others, it is not surprising that text constantly intersects with visual art. Parra also directs Metales Pesados Visual, a contemporary art gallery and project space. Above, a solo exhibition by artist Andrés Durán titled “Monumento Editado.”
Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI)
In the Lastarria neighborhood, the Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI) is a privately owned museum founded in 2001 around a contemporary art collection of works by Chilean artists. The museum hosts the annual Premio Mavi/Minera Escondida, a prize awarded to young Chilean contemporary artists.
The Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende arguably holds one of the most important international contemporary art collections in Chile and Latin America. The museum has a fascinating history. In 1971, after Salvador Allende won the presidential elections, a group of intellectuals gathered to form the group “Operación Verdad.” In support and solidarity with Allende’s socialist government, the group decided to create an international museum strictly comprised of artist donations. After the 1973 coup, these donations were made to Chilean embassies abroad and smuggled into the country. Today, Director Claudia Zaldívar leads efforts to recuperate works donated to the museum, but that are currently in other institutions in Chile and abroad.
At a casual dinner at Claudia Zaldívar’s house, I met artist Juan Castillo of CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte). The CADA was an interdisciplinary collective comprised of visual artists Juan Castillo and Lotty Rosenfeld, poet Raúl Zurita, sociologist Fernando Balcells, and writer Diamela Eltit. Mistakenly categorized under Nelly Richard’s “escena de avanzada,” the CADA was a separate movement that distinctly proposed a critical reflection on art and politics through actions in the public sphere. Through these actions, the CADA explored the aesthetic potential of interventions that border on activism. One of their most well known actions/artworks is Para no morir del hambre en el arte.
Centro Cultural La Moneda lies under the Palacio de la Moneda.
Under the guidance of researcher and coordinator Soledad García, I spent an afternoon at the Centro de Documentación (CEDOC) at the Centro Cultural Palacio de la Moneda, a cultural center built underground of the historic Palacio de la Moneda. There, I was able to watch documentation of performances by Carlos Leppe and Las Yeguas del Apocalípsis, among others, and browse through zines and artist books by Juan Dávila and Juan Pablo Langois, respectively.
With Ana María Saavedra and Luis Alarcón at Galería Metropolitana.
In the Pedro Aguirre Cerra neighborhood of Santiago, Galería Metropolitana is one of the oldest alternative/autonomous spaces in Santiago. Founded and directed by academics Ana María Saavedra and Luis Alarcón, who both have a theoretical background, Galería Metropolitana is a critical production platform for both artists and guest curators.
Towards the end of my trip, I met with Paul Birke, founder and director of one of the most influential galleries in Santiago, Die Ecke Arte Contemporáneo in the trendy Providencia neighborhood. Nearby, PAN, the former site of an old bakery, is a collaborative workspace/studio-space founded by artists Rodrigo Canela and Catalina Bauer with the help of Birke. I spoke with Canela about BLOC, a pedagogical project within PAN dedicated to education, critical discussion, and experimentation. At PAN, I briefly spoke with artists Paula Dittborn, Francisca Aninat, and Paula de Solminihac.
Outside Galvez, Inc. at Valparaíso.
Lunch at Galvez, Inc. with resident artist Luca Wyss.
Before leaving Santiago, I boarded a bus to Valparaíso. Ana María from Galería Metropolitana had put me in touch with the founders of Galvez, Inc., an autonomous contemporary art space and residence of artists Juvenal Barria and Jose Pemsean. Galvez Inc., as well as other spaces such as Espacio G and La Pan Galería, is part of Circuito de Espacios Domésticos, a network of hybrid spaces experimenting with ways of seeing and living art. For the artists spearheading these initiatives, art and every day life are one and the same. Both the space and the founders exude an energy of cooperativism and mutualism. In times of neoliberal individualism and the proliferation of the entrepreneurial subject, cooperative forms of thinking and making art are definitely worth defending.
Another view from the top, Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaíso.