What do artists do in the face of a brutal crackdown on expression?
They make art that can’t be traced.
In Chile, in 1973, a military coup brought down the socialist government of President Salvador Allende and put strongman Augusto Pinochet in power. He ruled by military junta, and was Chile’s president until 1990. During his regime, thousands disappeared, were tortured, and killed.
“Embodied Absence: Chilean Art of the 1970s Now” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts reprises, remembers, and responds to fugitive art created under Pinochet. No paintings here — they might be seen by authorities. Instead, artists staged performances or plastered posters in public, and then left the scene. The show runs through Jan. 8.
Curator Liz Munsell, assistant curator of contemporary art and special initiatives at the Museum of Fine Arts and visiting curator at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, had a bear of a job reckoning with art that mostly remains in archival films and photos and in people’s memories. Then she had to present it decades, and thousands of miles, out of context.
We bring our own context. Here and now, many Americans are afraid of losing their civil rights. So “Embodied Absence” is gravely affecting.
Chilean artists felt compelled to fight back through the means they had: their bodies and their imaginations. Elías Adasme likened his body to Chile itself. A map of the country was nearby or written directly on his skin in his succinct and hard-hitting “To Chile: Art-Actions.” As individual Chileans suffered, so did the country.
In one intervention, Adasme reenacted a torture scene in public. He suspended himself by the ankles from a Santiago Metro sign, making the government’s unseen atrocities momentarily manifest.
His photo documentation, blown up to human-scale, confronts us. Coming across a large photo in a gallery can’t compare to stumbling upon a man dangling upside down in public. Still, it’s sobering.
Munsell bridges time and distance by inviting Chilean artists born in the 1970s to respond to art made in that era. When the show opened late last month, younger artists partnered with older ones in performances.
Poet Raúl Zurita recited two poems, one he’d written before the coup and one long after Pinochet left office, both redolent with loss. As he read them in one gallery, a performer in a different one traced onto the wall Cristóbal Lehyt’s projected drawing of a spectral figure kneeling over what might be a body bag, which is still on view. Munsell staged a performance in which the central actors were absent.
“Embodied Absence” centers on lost art, much of which had absence at its core. Leftists and intellectuals were killed; some simply vanished. Some artists fled the country, and their mothers warned them not to come back.
Others stayed and protested. The Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA) leaned in a conceptual direction with their work. It was safer because authorities often couldn’t make head or tail of it.
Pinochet had ended Allende’s campaign to provide a ration of milk for every Chilean child. For “Para no morir del hambre en el arte (So as Not to Die of Hunger in Art)” CADA delivered milk in a poor Santiago neighborhood, then drove a caravan of milk trucks through the city to the National Museum of Fine Arts.
On the same day, Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean artist in Colombia, spilled milk on the street for her performance “Vaso de Leche, Bogotá (Glass of Milk, Bogotá).” Milk, so central to the well-being of children, was a freighted topic for Colombians, too — in 1971, more than a thousand children are said to have died from drinking contaminated milk.
Humor was another means of protest. Carlos Leppe created an early video installation, “Las Cantatrices (The Female Singers).” On three monitors side by side, Leppe, his body encased in plaster, trills like a hyper-emotive soprano. In some scenes, a metal mask holds his mouth open. The appalling yet funny imagery refers to torture and to medical intervention.
A fourth video set on the floor opposite makes the piece heartbreaking: The artist’s mother tells the tale of his harrowing birth, and pours out her love for him. Despite the horror of the image he presents, Leppe’s a clown — exaggerated, unreal, a symbol. His mother humanizes him. Her tenderness grounds the piece in love, which makes the threats he portrays that much more palpable.
The sole three-dimensional work stands out amid all the video, film, and photography in “Embodied Absence.” Catalina Parra re-created “Imbunche gigante (Giant Imbunche)” for this show. A cotton torso and legs stuffed with cloth and sewn roughly along the edges, it depicts a folkloric monster whose orifices were sewn shut so that evil could not escape it.
Who is the monster? The soulless government stitched shut by the artist as a token statement? Or the silenced artist, who frightens the government with her truth-telling? When a military junta is involved, it’s easy to see one as perpetrator and the other as victim. But here and now, the ragdoll “Giant Imbunche” reminds us how easy it is to imagine opponents as monsters, and perhaps invites us to be more curious, tolerant, and kind.
EMBODIED ABSENCE: Chilean Art of the 1970s Now
At Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Jan. 8. 617-496-5387, www.ccva.fas.harvard.edu