Oblivions are Just Things to Overcome, After All
Gran Sur: Contemporary Art from Chile in the Engel Collection
Sala Alcalá 31, Madrid
25.02.20 – 26.07.20
In a small, but very famous, advertising insert in the London Times newspaper, the British explorer Ernest Shackleton announced in 1911 the search for a crew for what would be his ambitious and ultimately tragic Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, destined to sail to what at that time was the last of the continents unknown to human beings, to travel and cross it. ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success’, the ad read. Despite the threatening tone, the invitation had a great response, and in 1914 those brave men sailed from the port of Plymouth, probably seduced in their imagination by the mixture of mystery and promise arising from what in those years was known as ‘The Great South’.
Echoing this challenge to imagination, the exhibition Gran Sur: Contemporary Art from Chile in the Engel Collection opened in February 2020, in what could be described as the most important and ambitious foreign expedition of the art from that remote southern country. Mounted in the Sala Alcalá 31, in Madrid, the exhibition brought together works by more than thirty Chilean artists from different generations working on a wide range of techniques and formats. All the artworks belong to the private collection of businessman Claudio Engel, offering a well-finished cartography of the geographical, historical, cultural and even legal territories that these works have been going through during the last forty years, in order to continue the difficult task of turning visible the vast and unknown territory that South America still is. Part of this task also corresponded with the space of Alcalá 31 itself, which hosted the eighty-nine pieces of the exhibition as part of their project that since 2002 seeks to encourage the displacement of private collecting from Latin America into the public sphere, serving as a bridge between different government entities related to culture, art fairs, etc.
However, what is surprising in the entire symbolic and institutional framework that this project entailed is how the geographical and even epic imprint that the exhibition wanted to give itself by invoking Shackleton’s journey, ended up marked by the same danger that also sealed the fate of the English explorer. Because far beyond the curatorial parameters proposed to review that complex, rich and painful relationship between Europe and America, the Covid-19 pandemic imposed an unexpected record layer on this exhibition, which wanted to challenge cultural limits and borders in a world that suddenly locked that geography by closing borders, paralysing industries and confining entire metropolises indefinitely. That world had become again, as in Shackleton’s time, an unknown and threatening place. Thus, by virtue of this unforeseeable crisis, it is now possible to see how Gran Sur, one of the main international exhibitions of the year, is now acquiring a very particular significance, having suffered the risks posed by its own will to enter the unknown, to question the geography of our history. When examining in more detail some of the works that were part of Gran Sur, it is possible to notice that the intuition of danger as a vector of history and its mutations has been latent in the reflections of many artists, whose creations, in the new context in which we see them now, have acquired an unusual relevance.
The Laughing Alligator ( 1979 ) was one of the works in this exhibition that most frontally raises this reflection on cultural limits and borders. In video form, it records as a travel diary the experience that its author, Juan Downey, had when entering the Amazon jungle to live with a community of Yanomami Indians, in Venezuelan territory. Despite its strong ethnographic content, the almost 27-minute duration of the piece does not seek to unravel the mystery that this encounter entails, but rather to live within it, immersing us in the unknown and leaving it to the audiovisual texture of the work to pick up the marks of the interactions, fears, joys and difficulties of the journey. Downey gives his own cameras to the Yanomami, for them to observe and manipulate their technical and magical properties, and with this gesture he allows the intellectual and historical myths of Europe to unfold over the limits of the communicable, anticipating the many questions we ask ourselves today about how technology puts pressure on the borders of our cultural diversity.
In a more subtle but no less eloquent gesture of resistance, the artist Lotty Rosenfeld presented A Mile of Crosses on the Pavement, a series of interventions on the layout of streets and avenues in different cities in the world that the artist carried out between 1980 and 2009. In Gran Sur are displayed the records of her intervention on Avenida Manquehue, in Santiago ( 1979 ), where the simple arrangement of white adhesive bands on the asphalt transforms the traffic markings into funeral emblems that poetically point to the humanitarian catastrophe that Chile was living at that time, under the rule of a military dictatorship. The photos and videos that document this performance once again acquire a new meaning in our pandemic times, where traffic and circulation have become dangerous and deserving of all kinds of surveillance. By means of this raw intervention, the work prompts the projection of the ancestral character of the cross symbol on the current ways that we have for understanding our ideas of freedom, circulation and control of territory.
Similarly, the artist Pilar Quinteros also investigates the tensions and disruptions displayed on the territory through ephemeral actions and site-specific installations, although also observing the unstable and often precarious quality with which architecture weaves the fabric of historical processes. Her action work Lago Bulo ( 2016 ) is the construction and subsequent burning of two house-like boats made of cardboard and paper floating on Lake Llanquihue, in southern Chile. The natural environment of the space allowed the artist to stage, in an allegorical way and with a good dose of irony, the ancient conflicts between the Huilliche inhabitants, originally from those lands, and the strong German colonisation that settled in the region towards the end of the nineteenth century. The permanent desire of cultures to impose themselves on each other is contrasted in this work with the evidence of the fragile and vulnerable condition of all human construction.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the work Gran Sur ( 2011 ) by the artist Fernando Prats, which refers directly to Shackleton’s journey – from which, as we already know, the title of the exhibition comes. It consists of a metallic structure almost 20 metres long that reproduces in red neon letters the same notice that Shackleton published in the London Times before his expedition to Antarctica. But its poetic strength lies rather in the fact that this enormous construction was located in Antarctica itself, on Elephant Island, through an operation whose logistical complexity is only comparable to that which Shackleton himself had to face to enter the frozen nothingness of that territory. It is this sort of revival or tribute – the arduous but epic journey that this work undertakes to reach the end of the world – which makes it paradoxically visible, and for which it was chosen to occupy the Pavilion of Chile at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
In one of his famous ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Walter Benjamin says that to articulate the past historically does not consist in reconstructing things as they effectively happened but rather in seizing hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.¹ If today it is clear to us how the Covid pandemic has put the word ‘danger’ back into our vocabulary, it is also necessary to learn how to recognise what tools we do have to carry out the task of redefining the past – and rewriting history – by virtue of this present urgency. For this reason, the Gran Sur exhibition, located right on the edge of this change of era, can be seen as a call to abandon our desire to predict the future and instead enter the risky but irresistible adventure of inventing it. Without having proposed it, this exhibition allows us to think of the current health crisis as a proper time to awaken that spirit of adventure and courage that we shall need from now on. That is why we can trust that this exhibition still has a lot more to reveal about how artworks can continue to flash up in our footsteps, even while we move over the most radically unknown horizon of events.
1. Walter Benjamin, ‘Thesis on the Philosophy of History’ ( 1940 ), in Illuminations ( London: Pimlico ), 1999, p. 247.
1911年，伦敦《泰晤士报》刊登的一条小广告引起了轩然大波，英国探险家欧内斯特·沙克尔顿（ Ernest Shackleton ）宣布招募船员，以支持他雄心勃勃的横越南极的远征，目标是穿越人类当时尚未了解和认知的最后一块大陆，尽管最后失败了。这条广告写道：“这份工作是一次危险的旅程，微薄的工资，刺骨的寒冷，漫长的黑暗，频发的危险，安全返航和可能成功之后获得的荣誉均无法确保。”虽然口吻充满了威胁，但这份邀请收获了热烈的回应。1914年，一群勇敢的水手可能被他们想象当中“伟大的南方大陆”的神秘与期盼所诱惑，从普利茅斯港拔锚启航。
“伟大的南方：恩格尔收藏的智利当代艺术”于2020年2月在马德里的Sala Alcalá 31空间开幕，以想象力呼应了这一伟大的挑战。这场展览汇集了30多名智利艺术家的作品，他们来自不同的年代，以各种各样的技术和方式进行创作，可以说是对智利这座偏远的南方国家最重要、最具野心的海外艺术考察。所有作品都属于商人克劳迪奥·恩格尔的私人收藏，它们提供了一份完整的地理、历史、文化甚至是法律领域的图绘，讲述着过去40年来这个国家的遭遇，以继续完成它们肩负的艰巨任务：使南美洲这片广袤而未知的领土变得可见。作为展览举办地的Sala Alcalá 31空间也融入了这一使命，展览中的89件作品被归入它们自2002年起开展的一个项目，旨在鼓励拉丁美洲的私人收藏转移到公共领域，作为与文化、艺术博览会等有关的不同政府实体之间的桥梁。
《微笑的鳄鱼》（ The Laughing Alligator，1979 ）是本次展览中最为直面地介入了文化的限制与边界议题的作品之一。一段影像作为旅行日记，记录了它的主人胡安·唐尼在委内瑞拉境内进入亚马孙丛林与亚诺马米印第安人部落共同生活的经历。尽管作品充满了强烈的民族性内容，但持续27分钟的影像几乎没有试图解开这段遭遇中的任何谜团，而是沉浸其中，带领我们进入未知，让作品的视听细节拾取和标记旅途中的互动、恐惧、欢乐和困难。唐尼把他自己的相机给了亚诺马米人，让他们观察和操纵，展现其技术和神奇的特性，通过这种行为，他允许欧洲的知识和历史神话在可交流的范围内展开。这预见了我们如今会诘问自身的诸多问题，比如科技如何给我们文化多样性的边界施加压力。
罗蒂·罗森菲尔德（ Lotty Rosenfeld ）以一种更微妙但同样意味深长的抵抗姿态，通过作品《人行道上一英里的十字架》（ A Mile of Crosses on the Pavement，1980 ）呈现了1980年至2009年间，艺术家对世界上不同城市的街道进行的一系列干预创作。她在圣地亚哥马奇哈大道上的行为艺术被呈现于此次展览当中：罗蒂在柏油路上简单排列白色胶带，将分道线的交通标志变成了葬礼的象征，富有诗意地指出了智利在军事独裁统治下所遭受的人道主义灾难。在我们这个交通和流动已变得相当危险、值得进行各种监管的流行病时代，这些照片和影像再一次获得了新的意义。通过这种原始干预，艺术家促使作为祖先特征符号的十字架投射到如今我们事关理解自由、流通和领土控制的思维方式上。
同样，艺术家皮拉尔·昆特罗斯（ Pilar Quinteros ）也通过短暂的行为艺术演出和特定地点装置，研究了领土之上发生的紧张和破坏，并同时观察了建筑如何以其不稳定的特质编织历史进程的过程。她的作品Lago Bulo（ 2016 ）记录了两艘由纸板制成的、如房屋般的船只在智利南部延基韦湖面上熊熊燃烧的画面。空间的自然环境使艺术家能够以一种讽喻的方式置景，展示这些土地最初的威利切居民与19世纪末定居在该地区的强大德国殖民者之间的古老冲突。在皮拉尔·昆特罗斯的作品中，文化间想要彼此强加的永久欲望与所有人类所能够建设的脆弱状况形成了对比。
最后，值得一提的是艺术家费尔南多·普拉特（ Fernando Prats ）2011年的作品《伟大的南方》（ Gran Sur ），它直接关涉沙克尔顿的冒险，也是此次展览标题的由来。这件作品由一座接近20米的金属结构框架组成，上面用红色的霓虹灯字母拼凑出了沙克尔顿在南极探险之前刊登于《泰晤士报》上的广告。但作品的诗意之处在于，这一巨大的装置曾坐落于南极洲的大象岛，其实施过程的复杂性只能与沙克尔顿本人在进入这片领土的冰冻虚无时所面对的情况相提并论。费尔南多完成了一次致敬，这是一段艰苦但却可以称为史诗的旅程。作品肩负着到达世界尽头的使命，这让它显得自相矛盾，并因此入选2013年威尼斯双年展智利馆。