Ch.ACO speaks with Voluspa Jarpa, visual artist who will represent Chile at the 58th Venice Art Biennial

  • Image courtesy of Ch.ACO

    Image courtesy of Ch.ACO

Towards the end of August, Chile’s Ministry of Culture, Patrimony and the Arts announced the results of the third edition of an open contest that calls upon Chilean artists –as well as national and international curators— to represent Chile in the Venice Art Biennial. Out of the 17 projects that applied, seven were selected to be presented to an international jury, which consisted of Paraguayan curator Ticio Escobar, Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer, Peruvian curator Sharon Lerner, Chilean artists Fernando Prats and Nury Gonzales, art critic Adriana Valdés and curator Valentina Montero, and out of these, Altered Views, by Chilean visual artist Voluspa Jarpa, was nominated as the winner project that will represent Chile in the 58th Venice Art Biennial.

Under the curatorship of Spanish curator Agustín Pérez Rubio, whom she had already worked with in 2016 when she presented En nuestra pequeña región de por acá, the first individual exhibition to be presented at MALBA (Buenos Aires) by a female Chilean artist, the selected exhibition reveals the concerns that arose after Jarpa read the CIA’s unclassified files –released in 2014—, focusing on a series of events that gave way to an hegemonic culture that consists of a few dominating countries and an excessive amount of dominated ones. Just like the exhibition mounted at MALBA, which rendered an account of United States’ intervention in several Latin American countries’ policy –especially during the 70’s–, the installation also surges from a meticulous investigation, that gives way to an interactive layout that discloses the un-official side of dominated countries, as well as a series of historical events that gradually configured the imagery of a global hegemonic culture.

Voluspa Jarpa, who has been working with Patricia Ready Gallery for the past eight months, has been present in past editions of Ch.ACO Fair and in the open forum program organized by FAVA Foundation, where she has referred to art’s symbolic function as a way of confronting and lending visibility to power systems and discourses. Since 2016, her piece Yo no soy un hombre, soy un pueblo –presented that year at in Galería Isabel Aninat’s stand in Ch.ACO— belongs to the FAVA Foundation Collection, curated by Pablo León de la Barra, currently curator at large for the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. This large-scale drawing was part of the En nuestra pequeña region de por acá exhibition, presented at MALBA that same year.

The exhibition you’re going to present at the Venice Biennial is configured as a dialogue with the historical events that gave way to the creation of a hegemonic culture, consisting of dominating and dominated countries. How did this become a concern of yours?

The question about the hegemony we live in, understanding that power hegemonies have existed everywhere throughout all of history, undoubtedly has to do with my interpretation of the CIA’s unclassified files on Latin America. I think that starting from there, aside from how horrified I was by it, one of the things I began to put together was to ask where power stems from, and about the imagery that lied behind the idea that power has the right to submit others, in this case, Latin American countries. In this sense, a tacit question emerged after reading these files, one that also has to do with the psychological effects caused by that interpretation. I began to think, how does this extremely dystopian power come into being?

And how has this power come into being? What historical events do you rescue in order to give an account of how this story has been built?

In the question of how it’s come into being, you realize that it actually surges form a thought system; an ideology that is more cosmogonic than a political ideology. We trap ourselves when we talk about political ideologies, and we forget that they are the reflection of a way of thinking that is much broader than that. With regard to this specific hegemony, the Eurocentric one –which is the one that migrates to the United States—, one of its strangest characteristics is that it aspires to be universalist. In other words, it considers that all of the places in the world have to aspire to the same thing, live in the same way, and have to believe in the same things: in technology, in development, in progress, in one or two economic systems. As if there were no other ways of living and understanding communities, social relationships, genders. This universalism is just one narrative, and a very biased way of understanding human nature.

For the purposes of my investigation, I selected six milestones, not necessarily historiographical ones, but rather, those that I believe configured this construction of predominant imagery. They’re all anchored to the images –which caught my attention— and I’ve come across them over the past eight years, but it’s only now that I’ve begun to articulate them. These are images that have ciphered historical moments that have to do with this hegemony. The first one of these is the case of the De Witt brothers: a case of cannibalism in Holland in the XVII century, which implied a tipping point for the republic. After that came the women in Vienna who formed a democratic political party in 1848, and were largely attacked through images and pamphlets. In this particular case, what I am going to do is to intervene these pamphlets. Then comes the case of the human zoos that existed in every European capital between 1848 and 1958, which popularized racism and gave it a scientific explanation. And so forth, with other milestones that I’ve gained access to through specific images or symbolisms. In my view, these are some of the events that configured a universal hegemonic discourse, which then allowed for the colonial discourse. Unlike the Egyptian empire, for example, which didn’t have the notion that all of humanity lived with these precepts.

What is your creative process like, from the moment you come up with the idea until you show your work? And how is this investigations reflected in the final installation?

The project appeals to this psyche and is intended so that one can confront these cases from a bodily experience; the way in which the body absorbs a capsule of information in a specific gestural corporeality. But in fact, the investigation and the creation are one and the same; one doesn’t come before the other. What’s more, when the investigation is materialized, one understands something new about that same investigation that wasn’t understood before.

With regard to the process, there are several stages: the first is the idea, which now appears as a clear idea, but which had to be articulated previously. After that, the materiality affects this idea. Because I can say, “I want the body”, but to reflect and transform that into a truly interactive experience is a difficult feat. I handle this with the curator Agustín Pérez Rubio and with two architect partners that I work with, who help me see what is and isn’t possible, and how to do it. My responsibility is having the clarity to say, “No, I want this to be like this and not like that,” because in the hubbub of making, you suddenly begin to do something that wasn’t really the thing you set out to do, or you forget the idea and you get distracted. I’m like the conductor of an orchestra, but I work with a lot of people.

What I can specifically say about the piece for the Biennial is that it’s going to have three scopes. These three scopes are a strategic way of emphasizing certain notions of this thought, from this point of view, from this altered vision. These are three spaces that have different lighting characteristics, materials, and relationships with the public.

How do you position yourself as an artist who is revealing something that is very representative of Chile and Latin America, but which is also a criticism towards the West?

I think that first of all, one has to be very efficient and very subtle. But this doesn’t mean one can’t be sharp. And in this sense, Agustín Pérez Rubio is fundamental. Because he has an extensive track record and plenty of experience, not only Spain, but all over the world. His experience at MALBA gave him the opportunity of understanding what Latin America is, not un the sense of what Latin America’s roots were, because that’s like a cliché, but what Latin America is in actuality, or what it can contribute to current intellectual discourse. So having him as a curator is also a counterpoint of dialogue between both worlds.

What is Latin America’s current contribution, on a regional and global level?

I find Latin America’s conceptual migration to be very interesting. It went from being a new world to being a third world, to being a developing continent. It was categorized from the very beginning. I also think that Latin America is very interesting because it is a place of abundant mixing of races, and throughout history, a place of considerable experimentation. In that sense, to be Latin American and a racist is a contradiction. To be Latin American and to speak out against migration is another oxymoron; we’re all a mixture between an immigrant who came from who knows where and a native.

What is the central thread, if there is one, that runs through Latin American art? Some say that globalization has risen to the point where there’s no longer something characteristic that identifies current Chilean or Latin American art.

I think that one would aspire to that, if one were to buy into a hegemonic universalist discourse that says that all of us are the same and that therefore we are all part of one same discussion. This is true, until it isn’t. I mean, it’s not true from the moment in which your nationality, your gender, and your history put you in a specific category. Universalism makes us trap ourselves and say, “Yes, yes, all of us who work in art are the same, and I am the same as an artist from New York.” I think that this is a trap that has to do with a utopian yet quite naïve illusion of power. I mean, an artist of Latin American origins will die being of Latin American origins, and will be seen from there.

One could say that something characteristic about art from the region is the recovery of memory.

Latin Americans in general, and Chileans in particular, have a strong relationship with the symptoms of this violence in all of its aspects: critical, analytical, testimonial, and bodily performative. But in my opinion, even through this art recovers memories, it still doesn’t readily dare to say, “How much longer is this going to be this way?” I think it’s good that art serves the purpose of elaborating these symptoms of society’s discontent, but there’s also a moment in which the artist has to say, “How long does this subordinate fiction last?” or “For how much longer will I not own what I rightfully own?”

When I read the history of the archives in fourteen Latin American countries, which are all tragedies –not one is worse than the other, each one has a tragic particularity—, there was a moment when I thought that this could be a second moment of independence, and of a failure of this independence. If you read it ideological terms, you don’t see this, because you think that it’s a fight between right and left, something that is completely false. What these subjects were disputing from different ideologies was the possibility of being independent from economical, political, and social points of view, and of establishing the societies that they wanted to live in. It was a second moment of failed independence.

In that sense, what these archives demonstrate is that Chile’s history doesn’t entirely belong to Chile.

Let’s say that this conditioning is what belongs to Chile. From that place, of course Chile reacts, but it reaction from a conditioning that isn’t something that it chose, it’s something that was there.

And this can still be applied to the present day.

It’s a placebo of sorts, ideologies are a placebo, “I define myself form here or from there”, “I’m a capitalist”, or “I’m left-wing”, and with that, I think that I’m saying something, when I’m not really saying that much.

Hegemony is built through ignorance. No hegemony is possible if there isn’t a system of ignorance that supports it, that allows for the hegemony to be believed in.

What cultural interests does Chile have to offer today?

Chile has a very interesting scene of young artists; therefore, to someone who wants to come and see not consolidated institutions, but rather, fresh, young, and restless art, this would be a place with plenty of production. I’ve been teaching for many years, and I have students that are very good artists, and I think that this sparkling quality of a thought that is forming itself, that is new, is something arresting. Also, they have a certain freedom of thought.

On the other hand, I find that the experience of nature in Chile is something that is truly worth experiencing; it’s such a powerful and geologically impressive nature that it kills your ego in five minutes. You’re on a mountain and you realize that everything you think is a stupidity, and that you could start thinking in a deeper way. And I think that Chilean poetry, for example, has this connection.

In addition to the geological factor of being at the end of the world.

From the end of the world, but also from a cataclysm, and one can feel this force of nature. This is why I think there’s such a strong connection to nature in local art.

What emerging Chilean artists would you highlight?

There are many, but firstly: Cristóbal Cea, Constanza Alarcón, Claudia Bitrán and José Pedro Godoy are some of the artists that stand out. There are others that aren’t well known enough yet, but are very talented, such as Flavia Contreras and Valentina Lobos, who has a piece that I love entitled Canasta básica. Something else that I find very interesting is what Claudia Zaldívar is doing at the Museo de la Solidaridad; she has known how to embrace these young discourses and the result is something very sparkling. It has this contemporary quality to it, which one doesn’t know what impact it will cause. I think that this defines the experience of Chilean art very well; it’s still not entirely defined, luckily, so it has the energy of a fresh scene that will probably be regarded in a much more canonic way in 20 years time, and that is being produced now.