Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARTS-CHILE: Shedding Light on the Torturers

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 27 2007 (IPS) - "Where Are They?" is the title of an installation by Chilean artist Iván Navarro, prompting visitors to pick out, from a gigantic word search puzzle, the names of 332 agents who tortured and murdered opponents of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The 35-year-old artist, who has lived in New York for a decade, is showing his work at the Centro Cultural Matucana 100 art gallery in the capital until Jan. 31.

Before entering the exhibition, each visitor is given the materials needed to experience the full impact of this show. These consist of two items: a booklet and a torch.

The booklet gives information about over 300 civilian and military collaborators of Pinochet, who staged the Sept. 11, 1973 coup that overthrew democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

Over the 17 years the dictatorship lasted, more than 2,000 leftwing opponents were murdered, at least 28,000 were tortured, and another 1,183 fell victim to forced disappearance.

Pinochet died on Dec. 10, 2006 at the age of 91, without ever having been convicted of any of the human rights violations and corruption charges he was facing. So far, most of the agents of his regime have also escaped conviction.


In the booklet, each human rights violator is identified by their full name. In some cases their role in the repressive structure is described, and in others the crimes they are alleged to have committed. The identities of some of their victims, and the charges for which they are being prosecuted, are also spelt out.

The information was taken from files belonging to the Christian Churches’ Social Aid Foundation (FASIC).

A walkway built by Navarro takes visitors directly up to the second floor of the gallery, from which they can see the whole of the first floor, an area of nearly 800 square metres.

Down below, the artist installed a huge grid of light-reflecting letters in near total darkness. Visitors must shine their torches to find the names on the list, including Pinochet’s.

The title of the exhibition "Where are they?" echoes the anguished cry still voiced by the relatives of the "disappeared".

Navarro’s intention is to focus people’s attention this time on the perpetrators of the crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Death and repression are recurrent themes in the work of the young Chilean creator, whose brother Mario is also a recognised visual artist. Navarro has said in interviews that some of his relatives were victims of the Pinochet regime.

Another feature of his work is his use of electric light as a powerful transmitter of ideas and emotions. His piece "White Electric Chair", made out of fluorescent tubes, is a famous example.

Navarro is regarded as the most promising figure in contemporary Chilean art. His work is exhibited in prestigious international galleries and sells for large sums of money.

A significant precedent for "Where Are They?" is "Criminal Ladder", a 10-metre high sculpture created by Navarro for the North Dakota Museum of Art in the United States.

The inspiration for this piece was the helicopter ladders from which the bodies of the "disappeared" were thrown into the sea. The rungs list over six hundred names of those who carried out the killings.

The torch light picks out names like Sergio Arellano Stark, an army general who led the bloody Caravan of Death, a special squad that flew by helicopter around the country after the 1973 coup and summarily executed 72 political prisoners.

Then there is Álvaro Corbalán, Raúl Iturriaga Neumann, Miguel Krassnoff, Marcelo Morén Brito and Hugo Salas Wenzel, all former members of the military under prosecution, or convicted, for cases of serious human rights violations.

The entries in the visitors’ book are an apt description of the effect of the interactive installation on its viewers. "Horrifying," "grim" and "rather distressing" are some of the comments.

It took Manuel Díaz, 46, only a few minutes inside the exhibition hall to find a meaning for the display.

"Before going inside I had no idea what the exhibition was about. I was intrigued by the booklet and torch. At first you don’t understand anything, but when you shine your torch the meaning of it all hits you," he told IPS on his way out.

"Though they hide in the dark, they will always know that they can’t hide from themselves, because every day their inner voice will remind them of what they did to others," he wrote in the visitors’ book.

Díaz associated the light from the torch with the probing conscience of the perpetrators of oppression themselves, which will keep them from ever forgetting what happened. "It’s the worst punishment they could have," he said.

"I felt a slight chill when I started to link up letters and see the names. It was like walking along a street and suddenly meeting one of them going about among us calmly and with self-confidence, as if half camouflaged," wrote another visitor.

Meanwhile at another Santiago art venue, the Moro Gallery, another work of Navarro’s connected with the military dictatorship is on exhibition. This one is titled "Proposal for a Monument to Víctor Jara," the Chilean songwriter and singer who was detained at the National Stadium in 1973, severely tortured and then killed.

A video clip by Navarro is projected on to the bare white wall of a small viewing room. It shows a couple with their faces covered in hoods, reciting the lyrics of "National Stadium", the last song Jara wrote, only hours before he died. Jara himself was never able to sing it.

 
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