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2015 Appear and Disappear: Art and its Lost Objects

Democracy to Dictatorship: Ephemeral Arts for a Chilean Political Discourse, 1970-1990

Zoe Louise Carlson

School of the Art Institute of Chicago


During two of Chile’s most politically volatile moments of the 20th century – the election of socialist president, Salvador Allende in 1970, and the subsequent coup d’état three years later, which marked the beginning of an oppressive dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) – ephemeral artworks such as muralism and performance art became a primary source of information. In many instances, these works were also a catalyst for successful social and political mobilization. Throughout Allende’s campaign and ensuing presidency, the Popular Unity came to rely on the ephemerality of the mural medium, specifically the mural brigade known as the Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP), whose murals could be updated quickly and appealed to working class communities. With the onset of the dictatorship, many artists turned to more avant-garde practices, such as performance art, in order to subvert and denounce Pinochet. Using fleeting gestures of the body, these artists communicated what could not otherwise be spoken in the face of censorship and violence.

Democracy to Dictatorship: Ephemeral Arts for a Chilean Political Discourse, 1970-1990

Appear and disappear strikes a certain resonance in the history of Chile: its reverberations can still be felt in the present day from its origins in the last decades of the 20th century. In the lead up to the democratic election of socialist president Salvador Allende in 1970, many previously disenfranchised and marginalized communities appeared in the streets, mobilized in their support for a better future. Only three years later in the coup d’état of 1973, many of those same people became victims of a repressive military regime headed by General Augusto Pinochet, who remained in power for seventeen years. The fate of the desaparecidos – or the disappeared – lingers as painful scar tissue on the national body politic. Under these circumstances two distinct artistic practices emerged. On the one hand, there were those based in grassroots organizations that employed a simplistic, but direct and easily comprehensible visual language – mostly in murals and textiles – as a means for organizing political and social mobilization primarily among the working class. On the other hand, there were established artists who, after 1973, began experimenting with more conceptual practices, especially those rooted in the avant-garde, in order to produce work that was denunciatory of the dictatorship, but simultaneously subverted military censorship. Although these two groups of artists employed seemingly opposing visual languages, they were in many respects very much in dialogue with each other, as they shared similar ideologies and political goals. However, this paper will examine the important role of ephemeral artworks in particular as they functioned in these two radical political regimes. Specifically, I will argue that ephemeral artworks such as muralism and performance art became a primary source of information, and in many instances, a catalyst for social and political mobilization. Furthermore, I posit that these works can only be considered and fully understood within the context that it was created for and performed in, such that politics and aesthetics cannot be separated.


Brigada Ramona Parra

Ephemerality as a material and aesthetic concern in Chile developed outside of the art institution alongside the politics of a budding socialist movement in the early 1970s. At the forefront of these conversations was the prolific mural brigade called the Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP), whom Allende came to rely upon for nearly all of his publicity and propaganda. Throughout his presidency, Allende continued to work closely with the BRP, who eventually came to define, and even drive, his socialist media program. Founded in 1969 by a group of communist youths, the BRP was composed primarily of working class members who lived in the shantytowns just outside of Santiago, in addition to students. A brigade was typically composed of fifteen to twenty people who each had an assigned job. These roles were: the trazadores (planners), who were responsible for the initial design; fileteadores (outliners), who painted the final outline of the actual mural; fondeadores (backgrounders), who painted the background ; rellenadores (fillers), who colored in the figures; and the guardias (guards), who kept watch for police. Prior to Allende’s victory, the BRP primarily painted propagandistic slogans, such as “Luchar, trabajar, estudiar para la patria y la revolución” (“Struggle, work, study for the fatherland and the revolution”), which came to be their motto (Kunzle 1978: 363). After Allende became president, however, the activities of the BRP were legalized. Soon afterwards images were added to their repertoire as they began to develop their signature style of primary colors outlined and contoured with thick, black lines. Their unique visual language was simplistic, but direct and easily comprehensible. This appeal to a revolutionary ethos spoke to the concerns of the working class, where Allende found a great deal of political support. At the same time, Allende struggled to gain control over official media outlets, whose right-wing directors often mischaracterized the Popular Unity, and similarly under and misrepresented the working class in the media (Fagen 1974: 60, 67). This is representative of the larger issues that Allende faced as president: he entered an administration that was primarily right wing, which did not agree with his vision for a road to socialism. Under these circumstances it is logical why Allende came to rely on the visual arts, and the BRP specifically, to the extent that he did for his media coverage. The ephemeral nature of the mural medium becomes particularly significant in this context, as it allowed the BRP to imitate many aspects of the mass media. Due to the cheapness of materials, swiftness of execution, high level of organization, and large potential audience, the BRP was able to keep pace with events at they occurred in real time – and often painted over their own murals to do so (Palmer 2008: 10). Consequently, they simultaneously provided Allende with a viable media outlet, and gave the working class access to pertinent information related to social and political issues. As such, the BRP empowered a previously marginalized population and created a space for the possibility of real social and political mobilization.

The BRP’s mural entitled El rio Mapocho from 1972, best illustrates this and is one of the largest murals that the BRP ever completed. Ambitious in site and scope, the mural was painted on the banks of the Mapocho River in Santiago, and was over a quarter mile in length. Its execution involved thirty workers over a period of fifteen days and could be seen from a mile away. The mural begins with a quotation from Pablo Neruda, one of Chile’s two Nobel laureates in literature and a close friend of Allende. It reads: “You have given me the fatherland as a new birth”1. This is followed by depictions of several different archetypal workers: heroic workers, miners, and martyrs. The mural ends with a scene celebrating Chile’s copper industry, which had been recently nationalized by Allende. The quote by Neruda immediately sets the tone of the mural and guides the viewer in its analysis. It suggests that Chile has been reborn under Allende, and as such, begins to build a new sense of national identity. Abounding with symbols related to labor, this new national identity that Neruda alludes to is very much centered on the worker. Through his labor, the worker can construct a new Chile, and in this process comes self-fulfillment. As historian Camilo Trumper notes, “this process of self-realization is inextricably tied to the formation of the nation […] it reminds the viewer of the central role that the UP [socialist] citizen can claim in state formation,” (Trumper 2005: 147). In their radical reevaluation of public space, the BRP begins to redefine what it means to be a citizen in the new Chilean nation. The BRP’s murals thus become a space where ordinary people, regardless of socio-economic status, can craft identities as citizens of Chile, actively participate in political discourse, and stake a claim in the construction of a new nation. This new type of public space is democratic, and not only encourages, but very much relies upon public participation for its continued existence. In this way, the BRP’s murals become a type of performance; for it is not so much the final product – the mural – that is important, but the discussion that it generates in its creation and reception. As such, the ephemeral nature of the mural medium is not only representative of the socialist context from which it was born and for which it was developed, but more importantly, the materiality of the mural serves a very particular political function for the BRP in its call for social and political mobilization.


Colectivo Acciones de Arte

The socialist program of the BRP ended with the death of Allende in 1973 during the CIA-backed coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet, who was subsequently installed as head of state. Upon taking power, Pinochet suspended the constitution, shut down Parliament, banned all political and trade union activity, and imposed strict controls over the media. According to Amnesty International, throughout his seventeen-year reign, Pinochet killed over 3,000 people, and imprisoned and/or tortured upwards of 40,000. Even today, the whereabouts of many of the desaparecidos are still unknown and mass gravesites are periodically discovered.

While the work of many grassroots artists and artist collectives simply stopped, or were driven underground like the BRP, established artists for the most part experimented with avant-garde and conceptual art forms in order to denounce the dictatorship while also avoiding censorship. The art collective known as Colectivo Acciones de Arte, or CADA, stands out particularly in this regard. Comprised of artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, writer Diamela Eltit, poet Raúl Zurita, and sociologist Fernando Balcells, CADA performed subversive actions that blur the lines between art and life in an attempt to highlight the effects of institutional repression on the body. In one of their better known works titled, Not to Die of Hunger in Art from 1979, CADA staged a series of actions that aimed to disrupt the officially sanctioned public space of the authoritarian government – which had been greatly reduced in both a physical and metaphorical sense – by bringing attention to it. In the first action, CADA distributed 100 liters of powdered milk to residents of a shantytown outside of Santiago. Milk was in short supply in these poor communities and, in the context of CADA’s work, it became a symbol of the overall poverty, malnutrition, and lack of basic resources and consumer goods that the people in these communities experienced as a result of Pinochet’s neoliberal economic policies (Richard 2000: 204). Stenciled on each package of milk were the words “Half a liter of milk” which ironically refers to Allende’s iconic campaign slogan “Half a liter of milk for every Chilean child” in his nationwide push for adequate nutrition. Although this action does not directly comment upon the politics of the dictatorship, it nevertheless presents a poignant, public denouncement, placing Pinochet at odds with Allende in the national psyche in its demand for accountability. This action was followed by three more: a page in the popular magazine Hoy that was completely blank except for a message that reads: “Imagine that this page is completely blank / Imagine that this blank page is the milk needed every day / Imagine that the shortage of milk in Chile today resembles this blank page” in order to give a visual reference to both the poverty and censorship experienced as a result of the dictatorship. During the same period of time that this page was published, a text entitled It Is Not a Village proclaiming Chile as a marginalized Third World country was read outside of the United Nations building in Santiago by a member of CADA in the five languages used by the UN. These actions were followed by a show at the Centro Imagen art gallery in Santiago, which exhibited a collection of artifacts related to these actions. The performance culminated in a final action in which ten milk trucks from a major milk distribution company paraded through the streets of Santiago, and ended in front of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, whose entrance was covered by a blank, white sheet, preventing anyone from entering the museum throughout the duration of the action. This last action, according to cultural theorist Nelly Richard, served as a “symbolic closing down of the establishment,” (Richard 2000: 205). Like the blank page published in Hoy magazine, the white sheet blocking the entrance to the museum is emblematic of the overall poverty in Pinochet’s Chile, but it also gives visual agency to the ways in which media is censored or institutionalized, particularly in an authoritarian regime. The action’s location at a fine art museum gives this commentary yet more potency as it lends a critical lens to institutional space itself and its disconnection from the public sphere.

CADA’s series of actions draws connections between bodies – individual and collective – as well as to networks of distribution and power, which become skewed and contorted under authoritarianism. However, like the BRP, the success of CADA’s social and political commentary in the series of actions that comprise Not to Die of Hunger in Art lies in its strategic use of performance, which speaks to their particular ideology, and serves a specific political purpose in this context. Because performance can never be reproduced in exactly the same way and has no possibility for posterity, except in documentation, it leaves little room for censorship. Furthermore, due to the conceptual nature of CADA’s performance, their actions do not read as overtly denunciatory, or even necessarily as art. Considering the work was performed as a series of actions, it is unlikely that the casual viewer would be able to connect these independent actions as they were sometimes separated by many months. Consequently, CADA’s powerful political statements become ingrained into the fabric of the everyday, manifesting itself not in material substance, but in social relationships and collective memory. In this way, CADA’s practice involves making the aesthetic political and the political aesthetic. Their art is their politics; as a poetic and performative gesture, it cannot be understood divorced from the political context in which it was created and performed.


Diamela Eltit

At this point, I would like to shift my focus away from the collective, which my research has so far privileged, and concentrate on the individual body under dictatorship. In doing so, I turn to the work of Diamela Eltit, who was also a contributing member of CADA. However, as an individual artist and writer, Eltit’s similar performance-based and conceptually driven practice pushes the idea of the political in the ephemeral to its very limits, so that it instead becomes centered on functions of the body. As such, the individual body becomes a stand-in for the body politic, and a site from which to accumulate and transmit information. This approach recalls the theory of performance art put forth by Diana Taylor, who postulates that, “performances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity,” (Taylor 2003: 2). Within this theoretical framework, the body is viewed as a critical site of expression, but this conception becomes even more pragmatic when it is placed in the context of an authoritarian government. Under these circumstances, the society experiences a “crisis of codes” because certain areas of experience are censored (Richard 2000: 215). The physical body thus represents the juncture between what can be said, and what cannot be said. And that which cannot be said “surfaces as bodily gestures,” and thus in the ephemeral (Richard 2000: 214). In Eltit’s practice, the ephemeral and the political converge, and in this way, rely on one another for signification.

This paradigm is best illustrated by Eltit’s performance piece entitled Maipu, from 1980, where the body becomes a vessel from which images and text are transmitted to the viewer. In the performance, which now exists only as video and photographic documentation, Eltit engages in graphic self-mutilation, inflicting cuts and burns on her arms. Following this striking display, Eltit reads portions from her first novel, Lumpérica (then still a work-in-progress), from inside a brothel. In the context of Maipu, the wounded body in particular takes on an important significance. From a conceptual standpoint, Eltit uses pain to bridge the points between individual and collective experience (Richard 2000: 209). Her individual suffering becomes representative of a national body of suffering; her body experiences both individual and collective pain. As such, Eltit’s body no longer belongs to her alone. Instead, it is transformed into a site where the social and spatial relationships atrophied by political repression may be represented.

In this work, the symbols of suffering on Eltit’s body – the cuts and burns that physically mark her skin – become a text from which can be read a critical discourse. Eltit makes this apparent through the narrative she inscribes on her body, which closely parallels that found in her novel Lumpérica, from which she reads aloud. While Eltit’s self-mutilation mimics the actions of the novel’s main character, the fragmentation associated with cutting and burning emulates the stylistic progression of the novel, which does not follow any narrative logic and is itself extremely fragmented. In this corresponding dialogue between the fictional and the real, the fragment and the whole, the individual and the collective, Eltit begins to question the narrative of national order and of cultural and political hegemony imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship (Neustadt 2003: 119). This narrative style, which becomes physically inscribed on Eltit’s body through self-mutilation, can also be read as a realistic portrayal of life under dictatorship, most often characterized by intense feelings of fragmentation (Neustadt 2003: 118). Eltit navigates the politics of the dictatorship through politics of the body and notions of the ephemeral. Through the immaterial and the intangible – the spoken word; cuts and burns, which will eventually fade to scars – Eltit seeks to imitate life under a dictatorship, not to merely describe it. Thus, it is through the ephemeral that the artist may once again begin to make a claim, and to take a stake in politics, despite, or rather in spite of the censorship and violence of a repressive government.


From the ephemeral to the political

Throughout the tumultuous changes of the 1970s and 1980s in Chile, which saw the election of a socialist president, and the traumatic turn to violent dictatorship, both grassroots and established artists consciously and strategically turned to ephemeral materials and practices in an effort to advance their political agendas. For the BRP, the ephemerality of the mural medium allowed them to mimic aspects of institutionalized media as a way to organize social and political mobilization around Allende’s socialist program. On the other hand, CADA and Eltit relied on the ephemeral nature of performance to make political commentaries and open up a space for critical discourse in the face of censorship. In either case, however, ephemerality serves a very specific political and aesthetic function and its organizing structure is reflective of this context. To this end, aesthetics become politicized as the political becomes aestheticized, and Chilean art of this period must be understood as such.


  • 1

    English translation from the original Spanish: Me has dado la patria como un nacimiento.


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Zoe Louise Carlson
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Having graduated from Cornell University in May 2015, I began my Masters’ degree in Modern and Contemporary Art History at School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Fall 2015. I graduated from Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences summa cum laude and was awarded the Simpson Prize by the department of History of Art for academic excellence, commitment, and achievement in the field of Art History. For my Senior Honors Thesis, I conducted original research on the artistic practices developed in Chile during Salvador Allende’s Presidency and throughout the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, especially as it relates to social and political mobilization, censorship, and government subversion.