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SANTIAGO, Chile — In Chile, things are happening. On the one hand, there’s a group of artists (born in the late seventies and early eighties) travelling outside the country but, for the first time, regulary returning and mounting exhibitions inside the borders. On the other hand, the younger artists, born in the mid and late eighties, are developing a consistent and brave concept of work, blowing fresh air into this remote art world. Many of them are creating very political art, fed more by the current government of President Sebastián Piñera than by the past repressive military government, whose shadow is still visible.
Camila Ramirez (born in Antofagasta, Chile, in 1988) is, in my opinion, one of the best representatives of the second group, and has one of the strongest political visions. Let’s put her intentions in context. She lives in a modest neighborhood of Santiago de Chile called La Cisterna. The corpse of Víctor Jara, one of the most visible victims of the dictatorial period (1973–1990) was found near her house. But as I said, the discontent is caused by recent trends and events: the extreme privatization of everything, the passage of conservative laws, the socio-economic inequality, and perhaps most disconcertingly, the privatization of education, increasingly only attainable by the wealthy.
These are the roots of Camila Ramirez’s works. She is like the Doctor Moreau of tools, performing mutations on hammers, shovels, hoes, and trowels. The results are hammers with two arms, trowels or shovels with ten handles. There’s both an ironic and a sarcastic message, conveyed partly through the titles of the works: “Community ax,” “Community wheelbarrow,” “Community hammer.” Because of her use of the color red and the imagery, some of the pieces remind us of the hammer and the sickle. There is a perfect combination between content and form.
References to the educational problems in Chile are obvious in a work like “Silla comunitaria” (“Community chair”), a chair with three places. The video “Un millón de empleos” (“One million jobs”) engages with similar concepts as the other pieces, but in a slightly different way; here the playfulness is more important. In all of Ramirez’s works, though, there is a question, a dilemma, that is not resolved: are we talking about the solidarity of collective work or about the exploitation of labor by the powerful?
Camila Ramirez, “One Millions Jobs” (2012)
Ramirez’s current exhibition at the Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity suggests an answer. The show features a video, titled “Vencer o morir” (“Win or die”), with three screens. We see a cup with six handles holding water, a casserole with four handles holding food. Some hands appear on the scene trying to catch the cookware, but in the end, only one can. It is a simple metaphor for how the utopias of communal societies failed in the last century. It’s about the impossibility of utopia, because although you can multiply the handles, there will always be only one hand that remains with all the food. Win or die.
When you talk with Ramirez about the end of utopias, however, you discover that she isn’t so pessimistic. “I still believe in utopia, although it’s complicated because I’m not really sure if it’s useful to define utopia as possible or impossible,” she said. “I’m very involved in political romanticism. I’ve participated in political party activities — that’s something that moves me so much, and I would like people to connect with that, too.”
That’s why she and a few friends have formed an artist collective called Intento Colectivo and an alternative space in her neighborhood, Armada Gallery, where they show their own work as well as that of other artists in a place where contemporary art doesn’t often reach. Given Ramirez’s message and iconography (which is easily understandable in a working-class neighborhood), this kind of exposition and spectator are more appropriate for her work than the setting of an art fair. Ramirez’s art may suggest that she’s a nonbeliever, but her actions and her words are optimistic, revolutionary, and romantic. In Chile, things are happening.
Camila Ramirez’s Vencer o Morir was on view at the Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity (475 Republic Centre Avenue, Santiago, Chile) from December 15 through January 27.