A Fugitive Vocabulary

A founding member of Chilean conceptualist group CADA in the 1980s, Juan Castillo insists on art’s social function as a means toward collective liberation.

Juan Castillo, En annan dag (detail), Växjö konsthall.
Juan Castillo, En annan dag [“Another Day”] (detail), Växjö konsthall.

In her 1973 book SABORAMI, the Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña writes that “the dream of social justice pervades the history of Chile and Latin America. It began in ancient times and continues today. It never dies, yet is always thwarted.” By this measure, one could also say that Chilean artist Juan Castillo, who has lived in Sweden since 1986, is a dreamer. His exhibition at Växjö Konsthall, En Annan Dag [“Another Day”] brings together several recent works to form a single installation that renders just ideals in a fugitive vocabulary recalling the artist’s past as a key protagonist in the development of Latin American conceptualism.

In 1979, six years after the military overthrow of president Salvador Allende, Castillo co-founded with fellow-artist Lotty Rosenfeld, sociologist Fernando Balcells, writer Diamela Eltit and poet Raúl Zurita, CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte – or, Art Actions Collective), which until it dissolved in 1985 was one the most influential groups operating within Chile’s so-called escena de avanzada. Most often staged in the public realm, CADA’s actions incorporated participatory elements that emphasized communication and posited art as a radical form of social practice. For instance, for the action ¡Ay Sudamerica! the group commandeered six civilian planes to air-drop over the city of Santiago 400,000 leaflets enjoining readers to take up revolutionary artistic praxis.

Juan Castillo, En annan dag, (detail), Växjö konsthall.
Juan Castillo, En annan dag [“Another Day”], (detail), Växjö konsthall.

Significantly more modest in approach, En Annan Dag – which revisits work from two previous exhibitions of the same name shown at Galleri Lokomotiv in Örnsköldsvik 2011, and at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago in 2012 – nonetheless conveys similar preoccupations surrounding communication and communicability, as well as art’s social function as a means toward dialogue and collective liberation. Here, themes of visibility and invisibility prevail.

On flatscreen monitors propped against the gallery walls, short videos document several actions in which the handwritten phrase ‘te devuelvo tu imagen(or ‘I return your image’, a line that Castillo has worked with in various ways for over 30 years) burns through screens – swaths of horizon and sky coming into view through the empty, smoldering frames. In one gallery, an adjacent monitor displays the close-shot face of a blind woman with her eyes shut; appearing at intervals over her face, digitally superimposed translations in approximately 50 different languages of the word “IDEA”.

Nearby, several works on canvas are fixed to the wall by thick masking tape frames on which statements are handwritten in either Spanish or Swedish. A majority of these pictures depict human faces, disembodied and crudely sketched in tea on raw canvas. Often indefinite – registering only the faintest impressions, or bleeding figure into ground – these ‘portraits’ are spectral. Much in the manner of religious icons, they suggest a transverse space: thought, imagination or dream; perhaps even history. One grouping in particular makes reference to the ‘Chilean Miracle’, the term coined by economist Milton Freedman to describe how neoliberal economic policies implemented during the Pinochet regime (1973–90) ushered forth an ostensibly free and democratic society.

Juan Castillo, En annan dag ["Another Day"], detail of installation, Växjö konsthall.
Juan Castillo, En annan dag [“Another Day”], detail, Växjö konsthall.

But who – if anyone – these faces might actually belong to remains open to speculation. Are they faces of individuals who Castillo, as part of his dialogical method, has interviewed during recent years? Or perhaps they’re faces of desaparecidos, Chileans who were ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship? Although a canvas depicting a skeleton indicates at least some connection to the latter, that such questions remain unanswered seems part of the point. In fact, gesturing toward humanity in general – that is, to the perception of similarities over differences – appears to be what’s at stake in these works.

This is most clearly echoed in Castillo’s assemblages, which again juxtapose words for “IDEA” in multiple languages with objects – including textiles, baskets, dolls, and woven figurines – referencing indigenous cultures. Among them, the Sami in Scandinavia, and the Quechua and Mapuche in South America. Visually, these works are charged by contrasts. In one, a wooden mask and a piece of richly patterned knitwear are fixed atop a bucolic landscape with deer. By itself however, this flattening of visual and linguistic material reads as rather less than solidary: at best a well-intentioned attempt at cross-cultural exchange; at worst a disconnect with the specific forms of struggle from which solidarity might actually emerge. Indeed, in one of his statements on masking tape, Castillo seems to acknowledge as much:

I am interested in closer contact with others, it is my base, my nutrition, I am interested in ethnography, but I have no such jobs in the formal sense, since the dialogue that tries to establish is not explicitly part of the context, if not empathy achieved interviewing people about their life situation.*

Following this, perhaps another somewhat more empathetic reading might be in order. With his exhibition Castillo is attempting to establish a ground from which to discuss forms of life that are marginalized with respect to normative society. While it can be argued that such a conversation is a necessary corrective to a contemporary European context in which foreign-born residents are increasingly subject to various forms of discrimination, and physical and emotional violence, it must also be remembered that dialogue, too, has its limits. And it’s precisely upon these limits that work such as Castillo’s ultimately hinges. Is the form adequate to the dream? For the many currently living under nightmarish scenarios, the answer must be “no.”

Juan Castillo, En annan dag ["Another Day"], installation view, Växjö konsthall.
Juan Castillo, En annan dag [“Another Day”], installation view, Växjö konsthall.

 *Translation from the Swedish provided by Växjö Konsthall.