Magazine article Artforum International

Eugenio Dittborn: Return to Sender

Magazine article Artforum International

Eugenio Dittborn: Return to Sender

Article excerpt

Contemporary air travel has replaced the individual's instinctive sense of danger with the fiction that nothing could be more natural than being propelled thousands of feet above the earth at several hundred miles an hour. At takeoff, one respectfully lowers one's reading material, muses for an instant, perhaps, on the miracle of aerodynamics, then slips gratefully back into a state of prolonged denial. Sometimes, if the landing is particularly smooth (or bumpy), a flurry of applause breaks out, effectively transforming passengers into audience, and pilots into seasoned old show-biz pros. Once the seat-belt sign goes off, the sleight-of-hand is complete: we shuffle on to our respective destinations, our collective experience of impending death displaced by the meaningless urgency of collecting our luggage.

A similar sort of denial appears in the art world, where a campaign has been underway in recent years to purge all sense of place from the presentation of works of art. An artist in Belgium or Canada sends his or her work off to a show in New York, Dusseldorf, Sydney, or Milan. It passes customs, the crates are opened, and the work is hung and lit. If the artist has been sent a plane ticket, he or she will go along. Curators of large international group shows painstakingly arrange artworks from Israel, Brazil, Sweden, and Korea to make them look as if brought together by an act of nature. Spectators, of course, are aware that they come from different places, but the effect survives of a seamless mechanism operating to promote all artists as "international" and all art as "global." Each time we cross the threshold from street to gallery, we enter a zone that is mysteriously the same, in which conditions of time and space have been suspended.

Yet even as we absorb this message of fraternity, our imaginations may wander from time to time to the vast hidden network of crates, trucks, planes, couriers, inspectors, and registrars whose job it is to make us forget that they existed in the first place.

Even to its neighbors, Chile can seem like a long way from anywhere. The Andes separate the country from the other two South American megastates, Brazil and Argentina; its northern landscape of desert, supposedly the world's driest, seems remote from the highland exoticism one associates with Bolivia and Peru. It is the most British country in South America (in terms of social customs, that is), has the last Prussian military in the world, and tends to occupy itself as much with its opposites across the Pacific--especially Australia and Japan--as with the countries on its own land mass.

In the final analysis, though, Chile's sense of distinctness arises less from remoteness or eccentricity than from a graver kind of difference. Ostensibly to underscore the point that this is the only Latin American country without a tropical zone, a committee of Chilean business and civic leaders (not artists) voted to send an iceberg to the pavilion representing their nation at Seville's Expo '92, where it provided self-regulating air conditioning as it gradually melted away into nothing. For a country perhaps unmatched in the proportion of its artists and writers living in exile, this image of evanescence in absence was a strangely revealing self-portrait.

Eugenio Dittborn's art allows us to consider the personal and cultural repercussions of staying in Chile at a time when "everyone else" left: between 1973 and '75, the military coup against the elected Communist government of Salvador Allende was followed by murderous reprisals against leftists, students, intellectuals, and other real and imagined members of the opposition. Dittborn sees these relatively recent events as deeply inscribed on the country's collective psyche, and also as directly recalling the collision of indigenous and colonial cultures that has set the tone of the South American continent's history. Using the metaphors of travel and home, he brings these two histories together in his art. …

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