Chile is home to a vast desert which has become a hub for mining industrialisation. Nitrate, copper, iodine and salt are the most commonly extracted minerals in this economic boom, which, as we all know, is a global phenomenon. Amid these far-flung, banished spaces in the north, the harshness of the desert is bound to shape its subjects’ behaviour, and it invariably leads them to concocting their own personal landscapes. In this sense, any collective reflection on the desert is tied in with the landscape’s diversity, and how it is used in different contexts. So when I come across different practices that gather information on what it really means to explore a space like this, I read up on the codes and dynamics they propose, i.e. those which may offer clues as to how best to observe the space itself. The ultimate aim is to carry out a close field study of this ever-changing territoriality, one which can always be moulded and modified, even if this process is fenced in by the borders of our conscience.
Pabellón de Pica, Tarapacá region, Chile. Image credit: Michelle Marie Letelier.
With this in mind, the desert exposed, several artists have come to Tarapacá in search of the very image which captures both the physical space and the overarching themes of their work. However, few people have the right experience to truly grasp the essence of a region which, for several decades now, has been tarnished by pollution and mining.
The Tarapacá desert, a terrain pinned down by the sun and the wind, forms part of the artist Michelle Marie Letelier’s research. Her work focuses on the economic and political value of minerals in parts of Latin America and Europe, in an attempt to build new bridges between the continents.
Acid route, Tarapacá region, Chile. Image credit: Michelle Marie Letelier.
The dunes, the grooves of the stones, the dismantling of abandoned villages and visible changes to the land – they all appear as mirages, rippling through this artist’s journey. Her records document the territory, and how it has been violated by humans. Along with her experience, this desert journey brings to the fore certain conceptual variations which in fact reveal to her a completely different space to that which she could possibly have imagined. This trip has created a new node in the network, tying together her previous investigations in Chuquicamata (Chile), New York (USA) and Hamburg (Germany).
Victoria town, Tarapacá region, Chile. Image credit: Michelle Marie Letelier.
On the other hand, when surrounded by the transformations that Tarapacá has endured, it is clear to see how the structures and shapes of the landscape have become highly fragmented over time. It is a more complex landscape now, a landscape in transition, a hybrid landscape, with a discursive logic which, at first glance, is tricky to get to grips with. In this sense, mentioning local history is an affront to those in the political contingency, and also for those who have witnessed the metamorphoses of this region from its being identified, by many people, as either just a big port, a graveyard for industrial stockpiling, or a frontier zone important to the survival of a handful of Andean cultures.
Unita hill, Tarapacá region, Chile. Image credit: Michelle Marie Letelier.
The work of Michelle Marie Letelier therefore suggests that if we interpret these landscapes, dominated by industrialisation, we should look into the kind of aspects that take projects like this beyond mere artistic proposals. For her, journeying through the desert is understanding the ground itself, and how the physical space and its climate have mixed prehistoric rituals with other more current ones, like aggressive industrial capitalism. All of this lies within the territorial frame, scattered there among the sands of the Tarapacá desert.