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A Critical Week in Chile

Book Authors discussion: Ana María Risco, Pablo Chiuminatto, Rodrigo Zúñiga, Andriana Valdés, Bruno Cuneo, and Sandra Accatino.

David Levi Strauss at his presentation.
David Levi Strauss at his presentation.

At the end of October, Alfredo Jaar invited a number of artists and writers from all over the world to join him in Santiago, Chile for a Semana Crítica (Week of Criticism or Discussion). The guest list included: Cildo Meireles fresh from his triumph at São Paulo, Shirin Neshat on her way to Morocco to work on her first feature film, Valie Export from Vienna, the poet and critic Vicenç Altaió from Barcelona, artist and curator David Bailey from London, and architect Ricardo Scofidio, geographer/anthropologist David Harvey (author, most recently, of The New Imperialism and A Brief History of Neoliberalism), photographer Susan Meiselas (editor of Chile from Within, a 1991 anthology of images by Chilean photographers working against the dictatorship), and me, all from New York.

We’re all friends of Alfredo, and we certainly knew one another’s work, but most of us didn’t know each other personally very well, and didn’t discuss the content of our presentations with one another prior to arriving in Santiago. It was a surprise to discover just how connected all of these presentations (in simultaneous translation back and forth through various languages) were, in ways both incidental and profound. Alfredo later said he assembled this group in Chile as a kind of lightning strike, to release a great deal of energy all at once, and that it did. The hall was filled every night with 600 people, and those who couldn’t get in watched outside on closed-circuit TV. The proceedings were seen by some as an opening, and by others (of the old critical guard in Chile) as a revolt.

This incendiary week, set to coincide with the opening of JAAR SCL 2006, Alfredo’s first major exhibition in Chile since he left 25 years ago, began and ended with a remarkable writer and critic named Adriana Valdés. Adriana was the first person to write about Alfredo’s work as he was starting out in Chile, and was also the one who encouraged him to leave and go to New York in 1981, so it was entirely appropriate that she be the one to preside over his homecoming. She did this in part by assembling a group of five young critics and scholars—all students of hers in the postgraduate art programs of the University of Chile—to respond to Alfredo’s work in detailed essays for the exhibition catalogue. This group of writers also inaugurated the events of the Semana Crítica.

In my meeting with some of them over Adriana Valdés’s breakfast table on October 28th, I found them to be alert, curious, well-informed, and eager to find new sources and ways to write about art. Now I’ve asked this group of, in Adriana’s felicitous phrase, “young writers, still free,” to respond again to what happened in Chile in October. Listen closely as you read; you may be hearing some of the future critical voices of Chile.

The Outsiders: A Jarring Note?
by Adriana Valdés

Alfredo Jaar has been an outsider in the Chilean art world since leaving for New York in 1981. The thought of coming back after such an extended time period has its perils; as another artist said, for outsiders the initial welcome can turn rapidly into a minefield. Established artists and critics may even feel invaded—Jaar’s work and his success abroad owe nothing to them, and might well work against their own interests. For many, though, Jaar’s comeback was long overdue, and his reception attests to a nationwide change in mood that has been percolating since his visit to Santiago in 2004, when crowds of young people arrived to see him speak about his work, and left in a wave of emotion. This extraordinary event gave Jaar much food for thought, and was probably the final push he needed. To honor the artist’s homecoming, JAAR SCL 2006, a retrospective that opened in October, is currently being presented in three different venues around the city.

The restored appreciation of Jaar’s life and work is reflected in JAAR SCL 2006, our recently compiled book accompanying the exhibition, which includes work from 1979-2005. In order to properly approach the subject, we had to identify other outsiders: young writers, still free, willing and able to respond to a radically new challenge. We hope this process will signal a generational shift, and a change in the way art is written about. We feel a need for art criticism and documentation to be more open and accessible; it has to be translatable, not only in terms of language but also in terms of attracting a non-specialized public and thus being able to considerably broaden the social impact of visual arts. Jaar’s work certainly strives to be in the public domain. He offered a poignant piece of advice in one of our extended conversations with him: “Don’t just think like an artist, think like a human being.”

As a friend of his since 1981, and the author of many texts about him, it was my job to make a connection between Jaar and the other writers in the book, an eclectic and extraordinary group of people with whom I was very honored to work. I have had the opportunity to witness their abilities first hand and see them in action in the postgraduate art program at the University of Chile, where I am a professor. I looked to them not only for their academic skills but for other, subtler qualities, which I believe are apparent in the book. It was a long, shared process of thought in which we all learned from each other—a process we shared also with Jaar when it was in its last stages. Because the “discussion week” that followed the October opening of JAAR SCL 2006 had a great impact on all the contributors, that is what they have chosen to write about.

A Public Intervention?
by Pablo Chiuminatto

Maybe what we witnessed in October was a public intervention by Alfredo Jaar, 25 years after he set off for New York. The cover of The Fire This Time shows flames engulfing a full-sized paper museum in a city that lives by manufacturing paper, but has no artistic institution (Skoghall Konsthall, Sweden, 2000). Jaar gave the community a museum, then burnt it down exactly 24 hours later. Out of the ashes arose a plan to build a permanent facility. Jaar’s project showed them a need they were unaware they had; he gave, and then he took away again.

Book Authors discussion: Ana María Risco, Pablo Chiuminatto, Rodrigo Zúñiga, Andrianna Valdés, Bruno Cuneo, and Sandra Accatino.
Book Authors discussion: Ana María Risco, Pablo Chiuminatto, Rodrigo Zúñiga, Andrianna Valdés, Bruno Cuneo, and Sandra Accatino.

My first question during JAAR SCL 2006 was what Jaar’s project for Chile would be? Although none of the works exhibited were created for this exhibition, the discussion week provided an answer. The week itself was the latest in a long line of public interventions, through which Jaar holds up contexts to question them, underscores differences, and transforms “reality.” To the layman, it was an international seminar; but here in Chile, there was more at stake than the presentation of some papers.

The history of our continent is one of lopsidedness in the movement of cultural and political ideas, with the predominant direction of travel, in this as in other respects, being from north to south. The revolutions, movements, and fashions that reach our shores are subject to the same economic variables that govern the marketplace. Countries that have enjoyed periods of economic affluence have more direct and lasting influence, and are identified as “modern” cultural systems. Chile has not had the experience of Brazil, Argentina or Venezuela in its cultural relationship with Europe and North America. It is sufficient to point out that those countries are on the Atlantic seaboard, and the workings of geopolitics are plain to see. Now that Chile’s economy has made the country visible to these northern influences, Jaar has decided, as he did with the Skoghall Konsthall, to give and then take away, this time by inviting a group of internationally renowned artists, photographers, architects, curators, and writers to share their thinking with us.

Santiago has no port, no coastline or rivers along which these journeys can be made. Yet Jaar offered something that is now a necessity: a week of mutual recognition. As in a port, we saw and were seen, said our greetings and farewells. Then he cut off the flow, leaving ashes to mark the absence. We were not unaware of our situation, and it is sad to have to acknowledge it. Perhaps this was the second part of the Studies on Happiness, the anthology of the work Jaar carried out from 1979 to 1981, before leaving Chile. We were happy for a few days, and now we have been left with this feeling of responsibility. Jaar did not just highlight what was lacking—he helped us imagine it.

The Lessons of a Provocation
by Rodrigo Zúñiga

Muxima, 2005
Muxima, 2005

Twenty-five years after leaving Chile, Alfredo Jaar can congratulate himself on having a young, enthusiastic, and like-minded audience in Santiago. One might say he has received the blessing of a generation: emerging local artists (such as Mario Navarro, whose presentation of the artist on the first day of the discussion week was clearly heartfelt), university students, young people barely into their twenties, all appreciate the ethical commitment of Jaar’s work, his rehabilitation of the deepest meaning of the word “political,” and his faith in the potential of what artistic work can produce by way of emotional and intellectual engagement. In the face of a nihilism that can so easily become another form of self-indulgence, Jaar is driven by the determination to restore a principle of hope.

It is not surprising, then, that the Semana Crítica generated a stimulating, sociable atmosphere, a sort of public feast in which spectators could also be participants. The seven-act performance was confirmation once again of the strategic skill of its organizer.

An auditorium built by Telefónica, a multinational company, hosted David Harvey’s penetrating neo-Marxist reading of the recent travails of global capital. For the Chilean public, there were moments of analysis and reflection (David Bailey, David Levi Strauss), engagement and struggle (Valie Export, Susan Meiselas), wonder and revelation (Cildo Meireles, Richard Scofidio, Shirin Neshat, Vicenç Altaió). Each of the participants succeeded in finding his or her own special role in the general structure of the event: setting out from their own experience, they approached their subject on different fronts. As they successively took center stage, small thematic structures emerged and dialogues cross-fertilized one another, unquestionably easing the task that remains before us in the sphere of Chilean art and culture: that of thoughtfully projecting and consolidating the issues left unresolved by that conversation.

I see this event as a provocation, in the most political sense of the word. In these Latin American societies of ours, it is easy to succumb to the predations of institutions of criticism: schools, universities, even museums. Only time will tell whether Alfredo Jaar’s exhibition and the collective participation in this discussion week have had a seminal effect, or whether they were flashes in the pan. For now, the lesson that still has to be learned is that of “community.” Intelligent discussion of the arts is not something that can be postponed, let alone neglected entirely, as a field of knowledge forming part of an idea of citizenship.

Flags in Open Country
by Sandra Accatino

The Paseo Ahumada is a pedestrian street in Santiago that is always crowded with people. Located in the heart of the city, just yards from the Plaza de Armas, the government palace, the law courts, the central administration of the University of Chile, and the stock exchange, it swarms incessantly with legal and illegal traders, evangelical preachers, performers, strikers, beggars, and office workers. On one street corner stands a screen used to advertise various products, such as televisions, cell phones, and automobiles. On exceptional occasions a crucial soccer or tennis match is shown instead and people crowd around.

Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom.
Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom.

But over the last few days, the screen has been showing a work by Alfredo Jaar. It is one of his oldest, but also one of his most recent: I mean Chile, 1981, Before Leaving, a series of photographs he took in 1981 showing a long line of Chilean flags running across open country. These images of flags, shaken by wind and surf and reflected in water and wet sand, are charged with beauty and nostalgia. Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet, wrote: “We think we are a country / But actually, we are a landscape at best.” In this work, landscape becomes a metaphor for country: from dunes to sea, the line of flags makes visible a divide. The most obvious divide of that time—between supporters and opponents of the military regime—was followed by other and perhaps more dangerous divides that silently and invisibly undermined the country, making normal social relationships difficult.

In Jaar’s retrospective exhibition and the Semana Crítica that accompanied it, it was this work that engrossed me most—the one work in the whole exhibit that is being shown for the first time. For the condition of its exhibition was its author’s return, an event that has led to a series of critical, diverse, important, and mutually responsive voices being installed in Santiago, like flags in open country. In this way, Jaar has answered the intellectual intolerance that barred him from the circuits of reflection and exhibition in the years prior to his departure with an inclusive, meticulous, and generous act, making a dialogue out of what might have been a monologue. Subtly, without fuss, Jaar has thus demonstrated the ethical engagement that is inseparable from his work.

A Question of Accent
by Ana María Risco

When Alfredo Jaar presented his work in Chile, he made it speak with a “local accent.” The book accompanying the exhibition was written, from beginning to end, by Chileans. And not just Chileans, but people—us—whose careers in art criticism are as yet more desire than reality.

From our vantage point in the university system—which has been the undisputed center for the visual arts in Chile since political institutions were re-established in the late 1980s—we have observed Jaar’s work as formal and poetical operations grounded in social and geopolitical issues shaped by the global model. By way of contrast, we drew attention during the Semana Crítica to the isolation of the Chilean artistic field, sometimes too self-referential and even arcane.

Two presentations left a deep impression on me: that of David Levi Strauss, who made striking use of an image-based study reconstructing the aberrant cultural and visual matrix produced by the photographs of prisoners in Abu Ghraib; and that of the artist-curator David Bailey, whose account of the rise of culture of African origin in 1980s Britain brought the experience of a project whose thinking and activities were nourished by post-colonial experience and a way of looking at new cultural realities as multi-racial phenomena. Bailey’s eloquent presentation brought us into contact with the work of artists who are energetically reformulating and multiplying the civic and political representation of the black world in Europe and the United States.

Untitled (Water), 1990.
Untitled (Water), 1990.

Bailey’s “Afro-British” accent and Levi Strauss’s critical American one, like the other voices we heard during the week, gave us the measure of a type of intellectual action that has been emerging in central spaces of social signification as an increasingly potent alternative to dominant policies of representation. “Challenging the notion of a single representation is a matter of human rights,” said David Bailey, leaving us with the desire to discuss these ideas, brought by Jaar in his work, here in Chile.

Domestic Matters by Bruno Cuneo

Years ago, the poet or “anti-poet” Nicanor Parra suggested blowing up a few miles of the Andes, ideally in the section adjoining Santiago, in the hope that it might make some difference in the proverbial isolation of Chileans, their tendency to over-determine their own referents and—I would add—the undiluted suspicion with which they usually regard any countryman who, solely on his own merits, has achieved some success abroad. “That bumptious far-flung wasteland,” as an angrier Chilean poet put it some time ago, referring to the country generally, but above all to its cultural environment. The celebrated moviemaker Raúl Ruiz has often spoken of the conjunction, so frequent in that environment, of the sniggering welcome and the well-aimed stab in the back.

Has Jaar’s retrospective made any inroads into these bad habits—to say nothing of the country’s idiosyncrasies? Let us be honest: yes and no. Yes, first of all, because he has made such an impact that it is no longer possible simply to dismiss or conceal his merits here; at most they can be debated, which is healthy. Second, because the number of young people who have thronged, and are still thronging, to the exhibition tells us that there are now generations for whom the Internet seems to have rendered unnecessary the cumbersome operation proposed by Parra, while also incidentally opening up an even wider gap between them and the people who for so long smothered Jaar’s work in a thick mantle of silence. Funding for Jaar’s exhibition was provided mainly by a multinational company (Telefónica), and it must be acknowledged that this has given rise to controversy, leaving his detractors in possession of their existing suspicions and justifications, or providing them with material for new ones. Certain established artists and intellectuals stayed away from the “discussion week.” Critical and media coverage of the event was not conmensurate with the attendance of international artists and intellectuals of the very highest level. In my opinion, it was a way of avoiding a truth that is far more trivial, but harder to confess: that the event we have just witnessed (and there are not many like it in these parts) is something they themselves have never managed to bring into existence—or perhaps even fully to imagine.

Leaving aside these troublesome domestic matters (although they are not unimportant, if we wish to grasp fully the effect Jaar’s work has been having in our country), I would like to end by quoting something the artist himself said to me one day when I ran into him as he waited anxiously outside the gallery. “Whenever I have an opening,” he confessed, not concealing his emotion, “people come up to me and say ‘congratulations.’ This is the first time people have said ‘thank you.’” I suspect most of those people were young. If not, everything I have written here can safely be dismissed as paranoia—and I would like to think it could.

The Brooklyn Rail would like to thank the translator, Neil Davidson and Alfredo Jarr for the use of his photographs.



David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

Adriana Valdés

Valdés is a lecturer of literature and visual art.

Pablo Chiuminatto

Chiuminatto is a writer from Chile.

Rodrigo Zúñiga

Zúñiga is a Chilean writer and professor of art theory.

Sandra Accatino

Bruno Cuneo

Ana María Risco


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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