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‘Embodied Absence’ Bring Chile’s Suppressed Art Back to Focus

By Petra Laura Oreskovic, Contributing Writer

“Embodied Absence: Chilean Art of the 1970s Now” is a new exhibition at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, but one might encounter pieces from it, such as Luz Donoso’s “Señalamientos con cuerpo estrecho” (Signage with Narrow Body), while taking a walk through Cambridge. This is not the exhibition’s only unconventional aspect—it also largely involves performance art. The works on display were created during and in response to Augusto Pinochet’s repressive regime, and many of them are meant to be ephemeral to avoid political persecution. Bringing them back to life, the exhibition aims to clarify and comment on the political situation of 1970s Chile while also overcoming the cultural, geographical, and historical distance between the works’ original creation and today.

Part of the exhibition was Carmen Beuchat’s dance performance “II not I (Two Not One),” which was performed at the Carpenter Center last Thursday. “We worked with principles of dance from the 1970s, but we didn’t know what the music was and basically went with the instincts and memories that Carmen had of the piece,” curator Liz Munsell said. “We knew that we couldn’t make a recreation of the piece, so we called it a reconstruction.” The performance, accompanied by minimalist electronic music, consists of two tent-like constructions, each concealing a dancer, who move two pieces of fabric, one black and one white, in a dialogue of movement that ends with the two dancers merging underneath the black structure. The work was a collaboration between Beuchat and younger dancers, who were in fact born in the ’70s. Munsell thinks that this connection links the performance to the present moment and brings an additional layer of significance to the originally historical piece.

“I see [in the performance] this relationship between being apart and coming together through dialogue and confrontation and how the performance relates to what was going on in Chile at the time,” said Lina Britto, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s department of history who was also an audience member. “It was a society that was really fragmented by violence and terror, and it was going through this whole process of finding their way together again.”

The exhibition also features a number of photographs and videos documenting previous performances. Many of them were about the series of actions that Chilean artists and art collectives carried out to contrast Pinochet regime with the the overthrown socialist president Salvador Allende, who had run a campaign called “Half a Liter of Milk.” For instance, one art collective named CADA distributed milk in poor neighbourhoods of Santiago de Chile. Another art collective, UNAC, disposed red dye into Santiago’s Mapocho river as a tribute to the thousands of victims of the regime.

Another example of the impermanence of the works is Catalina Parra’s “Imbunche gigante,” a representation of a legend where the protagonist Imbunche’s orifices were shut to stop evil forces from leaving them. The artist intended this piece as a metaphor for the violent suppression of individuals from the regime, and the original work was made of materials that eventually disintegrated. “These works could actually be a kind of danger [for the artists] if they had a lasting physical presence,” Munsell said.

“Embodied Absence” is an adaptation of an exhibition that took place last year in Chile, but the very act of putting it up at Harvard seems to affect its purpose in both places for viewers. Juan Necochea, a Chilean visitor of the Harvard exhibition, said, “We don’t really have that much visibility of art post-1973 [the year of Pincohet’s coup d’etat] in Chile. It’s not something Chilean memory in general reaches…. Everything after 1973 is very biased or just simply a lie.”

Liz Munsell pointed out that the Harvard exhibition featured far more newly-commissioned performances, but she also mentioned the exhibition’s emphasis on works of art that had been left out of the Chilean national art history, as many of the artists, such as Cecilia Vecuña and Carmen Beuchat, had not been able to exhibit their works in their native Chile.

According to Munsell, another important connection between the exhibition and the specific venue lies in Harvard’s history. Henry A. Kissinger, who used to be a professor of government at Harvard, was heavily involved with the coup in Chile. “Sadly, Kissinger has really been confirmed by documents that were unveiled through the Freedom of Information Act as the principal policy architect of the coup in Chile,” Munsell said. “And that is related to the development of what he was doing while he was at Harvard as a professor of government.”

The exhibition and performances of “Embodied Absence: Chilean Art of the 1970s Now” will be on view at the Carpenter Center through Jan. 8, 2017.

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