Putting the Past Behind Us

Lund’s Konsthall’s exhibition about Chile’s contemporary history is at its best when it establishes critical distance to its politically and emotionally charged subject.

Leonardo Portus, Villa San Luis, 2018.

In 1973, Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende was ousted in an American-backed coup that paved the way for general Augusto Pinochet’s eighteen-year-long dictatorship. This is the starting point for Remembering What Is: Chile’s Recent History in Film and Art at Lund’s Konsthall. The exhibition stages this as a historical trauma, still reverberating in Chilean society today. The curator, Hans Carlson, has set contemporary works against films by the Nuevo Cine Chileno movement in the 1960s and 70s, and argues, inspired by the historian Steve J. Serns, that there is a tendency to try to forget the dictatorship and supress the dividing line between socialism and fascism that has characterised Chile’s modern history. This lends critical relevance to the exhibition’s ambition to evoke memories of labour history. It also feels relevant considering the political situation today in other South American countries that have seen fascism return to power.

In the first room of the exhibition, Chile’s history is evoked using architectural models. Leonardo Portu’s Villa San Luis (2018) is based on Allende’s social housing projects in Santiago. One component is a replica of a model for an apartment building from the early 1970s. The same model is seen in a historical photograph with male workers examining it. These men saw a model for a future life under socialism, but to me it looks like an empty monument. That this emptiness still holds echoes of a lost world is confirmed in other photographs from the same period showing children in diapers playing and laundry drying on clotheslines. Apparently, this working-class area has today been overtaken by luxury housing, a gentrification that, according to Carlsson, should be understood as an extension of Pinochet’s neoliberal economic policies. Yet, this aspect isn’t articulated in the work, which instead conjures a monument of socialism beyond nostalgia and heroism. It sets the tone for a story in which a romantic utopia has been replaced by an actual understanding of historical events.

However, the exhibition doesn’t stick with this story. Instead, it goes off on several tangents.The purpose of this seems to be to express history as multifaceted and differentiated. The downside is that the exhibition’s mission, as it were, becomes unclear.  Apart from the national focus, there isn’t much tying the works together, neither visually nor conceptually. At the same time, there is something sympathetic about the artists being allowed to say different things, and even contradict each other. At least you can’t criticise the image conveyed of Chilean contemporary history for essentialism.

A key work is Claudia Del Fierro’s El Complejo (2014–2017), a series of ethnographic films about the forestry cooperative in Panguipulli. One of the films consists of interviews with workers who worked there in the 1960s and 70s. One of the interviewees came there from Sweden, another ended up emigrating from Chile and today lives in Tensta, a suburb of Stockholm. Their memories resurrect a leftist romantic idea of Allende’s Chile as a pure form of socialism. In another part of the same work, Del Fierro shows newspaper clippings about how the cooperative was violently overtaken by the dictatorship. This tragedy is crucial to understanding the nuances of the forestry workers’ stories. When the presentation is fragmented like this, this full picture risks getting lost. I also miss other perspectives on social life at the forestry. What was it like for women and children?

Cristóbal Cea, GLORIAS (detail), 2017.

Another problematic starting point in the discussion of work and nature stems from Chile’s colonial heritage. In the exhibition, this subject is addressed in Sebastián Calfuqueo’s video performance Welu kumplipe (He Should Keep His Promise to Us) (2018). Calfuqueo levels a subtle, yet distinct criticism at how the Chilean Cine Nuevo director Raúl Ruiz has represented the indigenous Mapuche population. The work is a re-enactment of the scene in Ruiz’s documentary Ahora te vamos a llamar hermano (Now we’ll call you brother, 1971) in which a Mapuche man discusses his people’s relationship to Allende. Allegedly, the Spanish subtitles in the original film manipulated the statements to make them more aligned with the narrative of Allende as leader supported by the minority groups.

Calfuqueo, who is Mapuche, repeats the discussion of the film, but this time paired with an accurate translation. There is a particular emphasis on the Mapuche population’s demands that Allende keep his promise to return parts of the land that were stolen from Indigenous Peoples – something that still has yet to happen. In this light, the historical corrective offered by Calfuqueo emerges as part of an ongoing project of decolonialization. At the same time, by showing the artist alone in nature, the film implies that this struggle has been moved from the realm of politics to that of personal identity. This alienation from social movements is a recurring feature in all the artworks in the exhibition, which makes me, as a viewer, doubt their political potential.

On the second floor of the konsthall, films by directors linked to Nuevo Cine Chileno are shown, including Patricio Guzmán and the aforementioned Raúl Ruiz. We are also introduced to the filmmaker Claudio Sapiaín who, like many other Chileans, spent the Pinochet years in exile in Sweden. The films shown here were not produced for an art context. This isn’t necessary a problem, but a bit more effort put into creating a suitable space would have yielded a more powerful viewing experience. The presentation would also have benefited from a more rigorous selection.

Amalia Alvarez, La Jinetera, 1990s. Excerpt from fanzine.

It would have been enough just showing Guzmán’s documentary trilogy La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (The battle for Chile: The struggle of an unarmed people, 1975–79) in a dark room with a comfortable sofa. The exhibition only includes the first part of the trilogy, about the lead-up to Pinochet’s military coup. The film depicts the game of politics by moving between the official level and the street. Through interviews, Guzmán manages to capture the energetic and highly polarized social climate of the early 1970s. At its best, it’s a display of ultra-realist action journalism. The scene in which Guzmán stands in the middle of the street after the congressional election in 1973, and almost gets run over sticking the microphone into passing cars, makes most of our correspondents today seem anxious, to say the least. The heroic macho culture that has historically characterised this kind of journalism reaches a tragic culmination in the final scene of the film. Guzmán returns to images of the Swedish-Argentine journalist Leonardo Henrichsen filming his own death. The event took place when he and Jan Sandquist, from Swedish public television, were reporting on an attempted coup preceding Pinochet’s takeover of power in 1973. In the film, we see soldiers aiming at Henrichsen who remains still, out of courage or panic, and keeps filming until the very end.

Guzmán’s dramatic film makes me think about an alternative understanding of the exhibition, one that differs from the model offered. While Carlsson wants to emphasise how history lives on through memories and socio-political structures, my view is that historical distance is nevertheless significant. It is very difficult for a younger generation of artists to revive the formula of pathos that characterized filmmakers like Guzmán. That’s why I would argue that the works of contemporary art that function best in the exhibition are those which make me feel nothing. Leonardo Portu’s memorial of the empty house is exemplary in this regard. Here is the embryo of a historical consciousness that establishes critical distance to the exhibition’s politically and emotionally charged subject.

Installation view from Remembering What Is at Lund’s Konsthall.