Si ellos callan

A Carpenter Center exhibition of video and photos shows the role of dissenting artists during a bleak time in Chilean history. 

By Samantha Neville '19

“Si ellos callan, las piedras hablarán.”

If they stay silent, the rocks will speak.

This is from the poetry anthology INRI by Raúl Zurita, published after the Chilean government admitted that during the military dictatorship they used to drop bodies of the “disappeared” from helicopters into the desert and the ocean. It is in reference to a Bible verse, but I imagine that here he means the rocks are speaking for all those who were disappeared and killed in the state sponsored violence of the dictatorship.

Zurita was part of Colectivo Acciones de Arte, the work of which is featured in the exhibition Embodied Absence: Chilean Art of the 1970s Now running through Jan. 8, 2017 at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

Walking through the exhibition, which points to a bleak era in Chilean history, was haunting.

Specifically, it felt like being haunted by the more than 40,000 recognized victims of human rights violations under General Augusto Pinochet’s rule. Those who were killed, disappeared and tortured. My mother was growing up in Mexico during this time period and told me stories of Victor Jara, the Chilean activist and musician who was incarcerated and whose fingers were brutally cut off so he couldn’t play the guitar. In the face of this torture, he persuaded other prisoners to rise and sing. He was killed for this. I was horrified by this knowledge, but I don’t think I quite understood the acute pain and anguish of the military coup and its aftermath until the exhibition.

Embodied Absence is an exhibition, but its installations have the aura of performance, the captivating draw of live art. One of the installations presents three video screens of counterculture artist Carlos Leppe singing opera while wearing costumes that are like modern medicine and torture devices. His mouth, exaggerated and painted boldly, expresses pain and anguish. A nearby screen depicts the artist’s mother reading the story of his troubled birth. The pained operatic voice is mixed with the voice of his mother, which mixes with the voices of children in a video playing in another part of the exhibit. The combined audio experience splits attention and creates an overload of sensations.

Walking through the exhibit, I felt a sense of the physical pain of the time period. There are visual allusions to torture and pain mixed with folklore and dance. Also: a series of photos and video referencing the children in Colombia who died from drinking contaminated milk; photos of a man hanging upside down next to a map of Chile, which looks like a method of torture.

The exhibition embodies the trauma that the dictatorship left in Chile. Viewing the photographic and video work of artists makes it impossible to ignore the torture, pain and trauma as something in the past. It is still a part of Chile’s history, and of human history. Embodied Absence: Chilean Art of the 1970s Now reminds us of that. It’s a history worth remembering.