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SANTIAGO, Chile — During a recent weekend in the Chilean capital, the same anecdotes were repeated to me over and over again. The city, people told me, is very isolated: bordered by the Andes mountains to the east, neighbors with the Arctic penguins to the south, and, to the west, are thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean.
But it is not only Chile’s geography that has isolated it. In 1973, the country underwent a military coup (encouraged, like so many South American dictatorships, by the United States government) led by Augusto Pinochet; the violent dictatorship did not end until much later, in 1990. While the exact number can never be known, at least 3,500 people were killed or disappeared under Pinochet, and 200,000 left Chile to live in exile. This relatively recent history continues to loom over Chileans, who are still in the process of reckoning with their past.
Having been in Santiago for Galería Weekend — a four-day affair during which artists opened their studios and galleries and museums scheduled tours — I spoke mostly with artists, curators, gallerists, and the like. On the one hand, they told me, Chile’s isolation has fostered a country of magnificent poets (Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, to name a few); on the other, tastes are still quite conservative, and insular.
“Chile is pretty serious and academic, especially when it comes to painting,” said the artist Grace Weinrib, as she gave a tour of her solo exhibition, Island of Socks, currently at Die Ecke Arte Contemporáneo. She described her show as “a childish response” to this traditionalism; she wanted to “inject fun and play into the work.” Laid out over a gridded wall are her painted collages of a whimsical bedroom, a castle, and, a personal favorite, a fragment of Weinrib’s childhood journal. Collaged shapes jut out of the borders and none of the works are framed. “I want to cut it up and mess it up a bit,” the artist said of the precious category of painting.
Weinrib, like a number of other young artists I spoke with, suggested that people in Santiago are still getting used to art that isn’t neatly framed on the wall. In many ways, the contemporary art scene in the capital city is just burgeoning. During the not-so-distant dictatorship years, museums and galleries, being strictly censored and controlled by the military regime, couldn’t support most contemporary artists, who instead preferred to make work under the radar, and often ephemeral art like performance. One of these artists was Elías Adasme, whose most famous work, “A Chile,” is currently being exhibited for the first time in his home country at Galería Isabel Aninat. The series of photographs documents Adasme hanging himself upside down next to a map of Chile, alluding to the torture of the dictatorship. Between 1979 and 1980, he plastered these images around Santiago, and they were subsequently taken down.
Isabel Aninat calls itself “the country’s oldest art gallery in Santiago”; it was founded in 1983. Even in the 1990s, in the years following the dictatorship, contemporary art galleries were rare in the capital city. Among the few that did exist, however, was the Posada del Corregidor, one of the city’s oldest colonial buildings and considered one of the oldest public galleries to promote contemporary art in the country. Currently the space is exhibiting curious contemporary textile works by Paloma Castillo Mora and Ana Videla, with the aim of highlighting a rich textile tradition in Chile, from the Mapuche to canonical artists like Cecilia Vicuña, who was a voice of resistance during the Pinochet dictatorship.
In addition to sharing work that was previously censored and never shown, there is also an effort among curators and scholars to uncover what was buried and erased during the dictatorship. An especially interesting example of this is currently on view at Galería NAC, where the architect Fernando Portal has recreated industrial objects that would’ve been produced were it not for the dictatorship. Under the socialist government of Salvador Allende, Chile’s industrial sector grew exponentially, an effort that was subsequently squashed by Pinochet. In his research, Portal read about a group of young designers who developed ideas for over 100 objects to be distributed by various state programs. But with the coup of 1973, their facilities were raided and prototypes were destroyed. For Portal’s exhibition at NAC, Bienes Públicos (“Common Goods”), he recreated these objects — including a record player, ergonomic chairs, a typewriter, and spoons — based on the drawings, photos, and notes left behind.
While Chile’s industrial sector has never quite recovered, the country has a rich history of architecture and construction that fortunately was not destroyed and continues to thrive. One of the most curious art spaces in Santiago is Galería Tajamar, founded in 2011 in one of the commercial spaces of the Torres de Tajamar (Tajamar Towers). The complex was erected in 1967 and was one of the first projects to incorporate skyscrapers. Designed by Luis Prieto Vial, the Torres — like many other architectural projects at the time — envisioned integrating apartments and businesses to foster a sense of community. Playing off of this, the artist Diego Santa Maria has set up an office at Galería Tajamar where he invites passerby to create, photocopy, and post an ad for a service they can offer or would like to receive from the community. When I went, the glass cubicle was covered with xeroxes, offering translation services, free poetry, and gardening (with a large photocopied leaf illustrating the service).
While I only met with a very small fraction of all the artists in Santiago, the impression I was left with is that many are still looking inward, into the histories of their own country. Paradoxically, after years of being so isolated and insular, Chile is in a fascinating process of rediscovering and redefining itself.
Grace Weinrib: Island of Socks continues at Die Ecke Arte Contemporáneo (Av. José Manuel Infante 1208, Providencia, Santiago, Chile) through June 16. Elias Adasme continues at Isabel Aninat (Alonso de Córdova 4355, Vitacura, Región Metropolitana, Chile) through June 3. Paloma Castillo Mora: ¡He aquí hombre! and Ana Videla: Desbordados continue at Posada del Corregidor (Esmeralda 749, Santiago, Región Metropolitana, Chile) through June 2. Fernando Portal’s Bienes Públicos continues at Galería NAC (Juan de Dios Vial Correa 1351, Providencia, Región Metropolitana, Chile) through June 8. Diego Santa Maria continues at Galería Tajamar (Pérez Valenzuela 1087, Providencia, Región Metropolitana, Chile) through June 6.
The author’s travel and accommodations were payed for by Galería Weekend.