Sediments: Contemporary Art in Northern Chile

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To speak about the Atacama Desert and produce contemporary art there means giving oneself up to its jagged, dry surfaces, beginning a process for physical dispossession of the self in order to open a path which makes it possible to experience this land and all of its amazing features.


Overlapping onto its brown surfaces are many different layers within the written and unwritten past, one history of the world untouched by extreme drought, and another in which mankind has left behind an imprint, one filled with stories told by the indigenous peoples, one of wars and conflicts, and exploitation by the mining industry… As if carrying an aguayo bundle under the hot sun, delving into Chilean art “from the North” means bearing on one’s back the weight of a story about a plan for cultural independence in conflict.

As Chilean curator Rodolfo Andaur (Iquique, 1979) asserts, northern Chile has always been an international space: it may even have become the very first consciously international space because of the boom in nitrate exploitation by the British and Americans as of the early nineteenth century. Towns like Pisagua –insignificant in a broad territorial examination of capital cities– possess dusty trails which have actually been the stage of an ancestral empire, a colonial regime, a war of national expansion between two nation-states, disparate industrial mining developments and an age-old process of kidnapping and political assassination by the military dictatorship. On its still, quiet streets, maps of geography, identity and culture never cease to be drawn.

Despite this, its global character was rendered invisible by the administrative division of Chile into regions under Pinochet in 1976, a situation made worse by the neoliberal economy which weakened the State in the following three decades. Therein lies the origin of a hostility towards producing “northern art” caused by more than just its unique geography: in the words of Justo Pastor Mellado, there are no schools or contemporary art museums, in a strict sense, anywhere between Santiago and Arica, at the border with Peru. This state of affairs is replicated on a different scale throughout the country, forcing many artists to begin their career by travelling from their home towns to one of the 16 university art schools existing in Santiago. In a country with a merciless geographic landscape –with far-reaching areas cut off and excessive centralism–, any attempt to reach beyond the borders of this order will necessarily take place in confrontation with the policies of a State designed from the capital. 

At a particular time of rising criticism over this model, many of these “migrant artists” have left their own lands choose to return and create art which then makes the leap from their cities to Santiago to undertake direct dialogue with the world. It is under these conditions that the Antofagasta Week of Contemporary Art – SACO came into existence, having brought together artists from all over Latin America at its fourth edition in 2015. Curators such as Rodolfo Andaur have assumed this “nomadic attitude” as a weapon against the tacit centralism produced by international onlookers: in his words, a viewpoint of “what is produced naturally in the local imaginary, but which is made into an adventure whenever a foreigner witnesses it.” Within Andaur’s curatorial projects, artists are called to use their works as part of a process for investigation of the desert, the final destination of which is meant to be the global art scene. This relationship is sometimes built upon its geographically adjacent and ritual similarities with the open space of the Andes, at other times upon its imaginary identification with portrayals of the Mexican northwest –like the state of Sonora which dazzled Roberto Bolaño– or upon a neoliberal “dystopia” sped forward by the mining boom, mixed with the ruins of a vast –but brief– industrial empire from the past.

For both Rodolfo Andaur and many of the artists with whom he has related over the last decade, confrontation with the desert’s barren reality not only creates a space of artistic autonomy for the north, it also gives us a glimpse of the potential for rewriting its own history: a history of art in Chile in which the periphery take the centre over by storm.

Image: Michelle Marie Letelier

Regional Desertification

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