|Chilean artist Maxímo Corvalán’s site-specific installation, “Free Trade Ensambladura” embraces themes that include Chile’s geography, its political conflict and its significant indigenous past.
While still a young child, Corvalán’s father, an advisor to Chilean President Salvador Allende, was murdered by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet. Forced to flee the violence of the dictatorship, his family sought refuge in Columbia, East Germany, Cuba and Mexico. After 17 years in exile, they returned to Chile when it was once again safe.
Being a refugee can bring a dual sense of belonging and separation. The kind of fusion and dismemberment that takes place between societies calls for the ability to adjust. Although Corvalan was exposed to the richness and eccentricities of diverse cultures, he was grounded in his Chilean identity.
His current images convey allegiance to his native culture, starting with a diorama of the vast Atacama Desert. Chile in the native Indian language means “end of the world,” and the geographical splendor of the Atacama, the driest desert on earth, serves as an apt metaphor.
Corvalán plays with viewers’ perceptions, starting with a sand covered floor that leads to the painted landscape. When entering an adjoining space, you look through a two-way window to note other viewers standing in front of the painting. The realization of being observed not only plays with perception, but it is the first hint of political connotations.
Big brother is watching. Surveillance operations are something Corvalán is very attuned to. During the Chilean dictatorship, secret police used surveillance systems to catch dissidents and assassinate them.
Cameras provide spectators with views of the landscape painting, projected in negative on the back wall, with images of the visitors in the diorama. Ironically, the observer is also being observed. Though the role of the camera here is ostensibly perceptual, you will be forgiven if you experience uneasiness at being photographed. The fact is that Corvalán cannot help but invoke the truth that who observes whom is about power and hierarchy, and in this case it is we who are the watched.
|Scattered throughout a second gallery is a group of sculpted mummies embedded with out-sized neon signs which spell out “welcome.” Save for the neon, the mummies call to mind the ancient Atacamenian culture, thought to be 2800 to 3100 years old. Corvalán was introduced to Prehispanic mummies in several museums in Chile, learning of their funeral rites from anthropologist Matias Garcés. Reproduced from polystyrene, layers of earth from the desert and paint, they are configured in positions common to the way ancient Andean mummies were interred.
The “welcome” sign is elusive . . . an invitation to an ancient culture, perhaps. The strange juxtaposition of vivid blue neon and mummy is startling. Whatever the intent or meaning, it is likely to be subverted by the emotional impact.
The body as the scene of violence is a recurrent theme in Corvalán’s works. His mummies straddle the ground between the mythic and the narrative.The mummified body is an object to be observed in a museum or gallery. . .the dead as an historical artifact and tourist curiosity.
The Atacama Desert is an archaeological trove of vanished bodies from past cultures. It is also where physical remains of people killed or “disappeared” during Pinochet’s rule were deposited. Corvalán’s mummies make a symbolic connection between ancient cultures and the politics of recent history.
The desert conceals and exposes simultaneously. It yields natural resources and uncovers cultural remnants. Specific cultural references transcend to become universal lessons, particularly those gleaned from the circumstances of death. Perhaps it is the symbolism implied by the mummies’ welcome sign. Welcome to the vicissitudes of humanity.