Chilean Culture and Contemporary Art

July 16, 2016

When it comes to the global contemporary art scene, Chile doesn’t seem to be one of its MVPs, at least not at first glance. However, for those of you who want to go beyond the mainstream and to get to know the exotic outskirts of the discipline, the Chile art story might just be one of the most compelling today. So if you’re curious about the way art developed in a culture quite different from the one known by the Western civilization, stay with us as we discuss the nature, the progress and the ultimate contemporaneity of this Latin American country's culture and art.

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Chilean pavilion at the Seville Expo in 1992: Chile displayed a huge block of ice transported from the Antarctic, as a symbol of economic and technological modernity of the modern, democratic Chile

20th Century Chilean Culture and Art

Given that the Chile is young in geopolitical terms, it comes as no surprise that it was slightly underdeveloped at a time when the modern art era was blossoming in Europe and the United States of America. Its first official painter collective was called Generacion del 13, and it was named after the year of its inauguration (1913). The subjects that concerned these painters were close to those of American realists’, however the style itself is often described as post-romanticism, as a category similar to realism but still enveloped by a touch of the personal, and ignorant of the leading trends in the rest of the world. As much as this collective was significant as a pioneering example of what a unified artistic group might be about, it could be said that one of the biggest break-throughs was made in the 1950s, when the Rectángulo group abandoned naturalism and started experimenting with geometric shapes. This was the first direct take on abstraction in Chilean art. Since then, Chile went through a series of political and societal changes, that further shaped the interests and the subject matter that became central to their artists.

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Exequiel Plaza - Escena en la vega

Living In Chile - Art Inspiration

When you’re living in a country with a landscape as dramatic as Chile, there is no doubt that it will become one of the most inspiring subjects. The way of dealing with landscape, on the other hand, is what changed and evolved as time passed by. Rectangulo group dared to treat the landscape differently and to reinvent its momentous character through abstract shapes. The legacy was further embraced by younger creatives, especially the muralists who dominated the art scene during the 60’s and the early 70’s, among them Roberto Matta who became one of the most prominent figures of Chilean painting.

In the mid 70’s, Chile faced the beginning of the most dreadful period in its history, marked by a military dictatorship led by Pinochet, which lasted from 1973 to 1990. Although he was never officially proclaimed a fascist, the Chilean leader was known for severe violations of human rights, some of which resulted in brutal murders and tortures. Chileans were deprived of their rights to speak and act freely, at a time when humanity was, ironically, progressing toward a significant social liberation and tolerance (marked by the aftermath of the 1968 protests and the steady rise of feminism, all of which were supposed to lead toward a more equal and righteous world). Pinochet censorship naturally became the second most important impression that affected Chilean art, but the freedom to express discontent or fear was restricted.

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Roberto Matta - The Earth Is a Man

Turning Point in the Progress of Chile Culture

This is a point when Chilean art actually became a tool for realizing the life that could not be directly lived. It is not a coincidence that it was the period in which artists massively rejected painting and traditional artistic forms and embraced other genres that helped them live the art they made, even if tacitly. In an equally unexpected and brilliant turn of events, the period of great crisis in Chile gave birth to some of the most avant-guarde art forms, such as performance art and installation. A secret language was developed in Chile, in order to evade the censorship and to mystify the explicit notion, which created perfect conditions for the evolution of conceptual art. Art had to be smarter than direct language and less obvious than a metaphor. In a way, Chilean art went through a painstaking training, which produced some of the most remarkable shifts in the way of looking at art in Chile. The most notable group from the 70’s was CADA - Colectivo Acciones de Arte, which consisted of thinkers and artists alike. Lotty Rosenfeld and Raul Zurita might have been the two most inspiring members of the group, and the ones who introduced the power and significance of public art and action. They were the ones who touched upon the concept of documenting art as a way of signifying that art happens, just like life does. Another type of hidden language was used by Eugenio Dittborn, who tackled the subject of isolation in Chile (also inspired by the political situation). The actual subject matter of his drawings and other types of visual artwork were not as relevant as the act that followed, which was to send his works in packages, all across the globe.

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Raul Zurita - Poemas en el cielo, 1982

Chile Music and Documentary Film

Beside performance art and action, the 70's and the 80's became important precursors in the development of documentary film and the alternative Chilean music scene. One of Patricio Guzman's most notable documentary movies, The Battle of Chile, was filmed in 3 parts in 1975, 1976 and 1979. The film was referenced in a documentary made 2 decades later, in 1996, when the Pinochet era was over and the director came back to his home country. It was used as a way of exploring and challenging the genuine Chilean identity in years after the oppressive regime, involving some of the people who participated in the first documentary. However, its streaming was not welcome at some places (schools, for example), as the people were led by a common belief that it was better not to traumatize younger generations. Music, which plays an important role in Chile culture and tradition, was hit by the oppression as well, but during the 80's it became greatly inspired by it. It was a time when several alternative rock bands dominated the scene in Chile, but the guitar was soon replaced by hip hop songs and rap music, which became a very influential genre in Chile. Today, Chile seems to have slightly abandoned the traditional use of musical instruments and is best known for their electronic music, represented on an international level by such DJs and producers as Nicholas Jaar and Jorge Gonzales.

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Patricio Guzman - La batalla de Chile, 1975

Chilean Contemporary Art

The Chile dictatorship was not only relevant to Chilean culture while it lasted, as its aftermath served as a chance to approach the matter through a more direct treatment. This idea was crowned by an art exhibition by Gonzalo Diaz, called Lonquén, 10 años in 1989, which basically announced the end of the fear and the beginning of introspection and the revelation of truth. The exhibit directly addressed and condemned the murders and tortures that used to happen during the military dictatorship in Chile.

Nonetheless, the character of Chilean art from the 90’s onward was not necessarily based on the infamous totalitarian regime, at least not in a regressive way. Today’s art in Chile is more frequently described as forward-looking, being concerned with the present, and even the future rather than the past. Still, one of the most ubiquitous remains of the Pinochet period is a search for identity, which requires reinvention and affirmation. A search for (or a claim of) identity was present both during and after Pinochet’s regime in some form. The position of the Chilean immigrant, as well as the image of a native Chilean as seen by the rest of the world reappears as a theme many of Chilean artists' works - starting with the aforementioned Dittborn, and including some of today’s contemporary artists as well, such as the renowned Ivan Navarro. The feeling of isolation and distance is preconditioned both by the geography and the history of Chile. While the latter was already addressed a few times, the former can be beautifully illustrated through a video work by Enrique Ramirez. The Ocean was filmed in 2013, and it is a full length video of a 3-week long journey across the Pacific Ocean from the South American coast to Europe. “Why Are We So Distant From The World?” is quoted as one of the artist’s questions. By we, the artist doesn’t mean Chileans only (moreover, the project is a Franco-Chilean collaboration itself, which incarnates the ones known from the past) – he refers to all of us. The project juxtaposes loneliness and unity, documenting the ocean both as an obstacle and a bridge between two pieces of land. It serves both as a melancholic metaphor for the Chilean search for identity, and a way of saying that the distance can be defeated.

Océan, 33°02’47”S / 51°04’00”N (sequence shot) - A Gem of Chile and Chilean Culture

Featured images: Lotty Rosenfeld - Una milla de cruces en el pavimento, 1979-1982, Washington D. C.; Natalia Babarovic - Cielo II, 2010. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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Ivan Navarro