Julia P. Herzberg, Ph.D.©
In 1973, when Máximo Corvalán was only a few months old, his mother, recently widowed, sought refuge abroad for political reasons.i They lived in Colombia for a year, in East Germany for another, in Cuba for five years, and in Mexico for the remaining ten. Their seventeen years in exile ended in 1991 when it was safe to return to Chile. Throughout their years abroad, Corvalán maintained a sense of his Chilean identity, enriched, however, by his transnational experiences. His ability to adjust and readjust made for a relatively smooth return to his motherland where he finished high school and graduated from the university. His particular experiences color his view of the world as he engages art as a creative endeavor.
Corvalán’s receptivity and sensibility to things Chilean include his interest in Chile’s history, beginning with the country’s original cultures and continuing through 20th-century sociopolitical movements from Allende to Pinochet to democracy. Since the return of democracy in 1990, under the Concertación governments, Chile has entered into a series of free-trade agreements with Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the United States, resulting in global partnership agreements that have expanded the country’s economic bases.ii
The artist’s site-specific installation Free Trade Ensambladura reflects his interests in history, memory, and power structures. The title plays on the negotiations involved in “putting together” (ensamblar) free trade agreements, in which Chile has been very proactive and successful. The installation draws on the artist’s recent experiences in Calama, a small highland city in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Two years ago, Corvalán became the curator of the contemporary arts center, Centro de Arte Ojo del Desierto (CAOD). While getting to know the people and cultural facilities in the area around Calama, the artist spent time in tbe Depósito Arqueológico Los Ojos del Chaman, de la Corporación de Cultura y Turismo, the most important conservation laboratory in the region, one closed to visitors. Archaeologists working there photograph, study, and archive the material remains from excavations. One of the archaeologists gave Corvalán permission to photograph and study the mummies, so he could later reproduce them with greater understanding and accuracy.iii
Free Trade Ensambladura is divided into two adjoining spaces in a gallery: the first is a diorama; the second contains reproductions of mummies. The artist re-created a desert habitat similar to ones in archaeological or natural history museums in Chile. In deciding on a diorama as the point of entry, the artist may have been motivated by one in the Museo Nacional de Historía Natural in Santiago. In Corvalán’s diorama the floor is covered with sand and the walls and ceiling are inspired by a landscape of the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. The desert is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the east by the Andes, which extend the length of the country, thus defining one of Chile’s most prominent geographic features. The desert runs from the southern border of Peru into Chile one thousand kilometers (600 hundred miles).iv The highland plains in the desert rise 3,500 to 4,500 meters above sea level; the dramatic snow-capped peaks are over 6,000 meters. Matching the beauty of the desert region are its rich deposits of saltpeter, a source for copper, lithium, borax, and iodine, products that are important to Chile’s economy. The painting’s illusionistic space evokes a sense of the desert’s grandeur, broadening the spectator’s spatial perspectives while introducing a view of an unfamiliar geographical wonder.
In leaving the diorama to enter the adjoining space, the spectator can view people through a window and see the other viewers located in front of the painting. At that point, the visitor begins to realize that he/she is being recorded on a closed circuit camera.v Surveillance cameras, wherever they are placed, has proven useful tools in identifying people who may be committing unlawful acts. On the negative side, however, they create a loss of individual autonomy because, in effect, everyone is being watched in the Orwellian sense by a “big brother.” The surveillance overload in this installation is further evidenced when the spectator views the landscape painting projected in negative on the back wall together, again with images of the visitors in the diorama. By projecting the scene in negative, however, the desert landscape in the diorama appears white as if covered with snow, thereby presenting a contrasting view of the white-capped peaks.
If those elements are surprising, so perhaps is the encounter with a group of mummies, each meticulously reproduced by the artist and placed in different areas in the gallery.vi Three mummies are depicted in the fetal position, common to the way bodies were interred by the Atacamenian culture, a Prehispanic culture older than 11, 000 years. The Chinchorros, another ancient Andean culture, devised a complicated method of mummifying their dead around 5,000 BC, long before the Egyptians began experimenting with mummification.vii Corvalan’s mummies are also reminiscent of a specific Atacamenian mummy, thought to be about 2,800 to 3,100 years old, housed in the Regional Archaeological Museum of San Pedro of Atacama.viii The other two mummies in the gallery are configured in different outstretched positions, reminders of today’s ongoing archaeological explorations as well as the physical remains of the disappeared who were deposited in various locations of this high, dry region in northern Chile.ix
The word “Welcome,” constructed in neon, is placed through several mummies. At first glance, the words are disconcerting and their meaning elusive. Linguistically they communicate an intent to receive someone with pleasure and hospitality. In that sense, are we being welcomed to a geographically barren territory, the driest in the world? Or are we being welcomed to the original site of one of the oldest cultures where the millennia are registered in the unearthed artifacts (textiles, bones, stone carvings, tools, among other materials) destined for museums? Or do the “Welcome” signs refer to a territory abundantly rich in natural resources that will be further developed through Chile’s free-trade agreements? Perhaps all the above?
i The artist’s father, Héctor Ricardo Pincheira Núñez, was an advisor to President Salvador Allende. Dr. Pincheira Núñez was killed along with thirteen other persons in the president’s inner circle on September 13, 1973, two days after the military coup d’ état.
ii The U.S. – Chile Free Trade Agreement (FTA), for example, that began officially on January 1, 2004, eliminates bilateral tariffs, lowers trade barriers, promotes economic integration, and aims to expand opportunities for the peoples of both countries.
iii The anthropologist Matías Garcés introduced the artist to the funeral rites of the Atacamenians, a culture that today claims some 3,000 people. Garcés also spoke about their wishes not to allow their mummified ancestors to be displayed publicly.
Reproductions of the excavated mummies are made and sent to museums where they are displayed in place of the originals.
iv More than a million people live in the Atacama in coastal cities, mining compounds, fishing villages, and oasis towns. International teams of astronomers work in observatories on the Atacama’s coastal range. Some farming activity is carried on with drip-irrigation systems.
v Corvalán is very attuned to surveillance systems of all kinds and often employs closedcircuit cameras in his work. He is especially knowledgeable about the Condor Operation in which the Chilean dictatorship organized a six-country alliance of secret police agencies, which provided surveillance on each other’s dissidents and helped assassinate the most troubling exiled opponents.
vi The artist made the mummies from polystyrene, covered them with layers of different kinds of earth brought from the desert, and then painted them. In figuring out the best methods to replicate the mummies, Corvalán consulted Harold Krusell Johansen, the artist in charge of creating dioramas and reproducing mummies at the Natural History Museum in Santiago. vii Corvalán has seen Chinchorro mummies, the oldest human-made mummies in the world, in several museums in Chile. The Chinchorro culture appears to have settled in the area around Arica in northern Chile 11, 000 years ago. Chinchorro mummies are in the Archaeological Museum in San Miguel de Azapa, part of the University of Tarapacá, near Arica. For the specific procedures of mummification, see http:// www.archaelogy.org and http:// www.uta.cl/masma (Masma WEB, Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa).
viii The Atacamenian mummy, nicknamed Miss Chile because she is believed to have been beautiful, is a prized artifact in the Museum Gustavo Le Paige in San Pedro de Atacama (Museo R. P. Gustavo Le Paige). The museum was first inaugurated in 1957 with objects and mummies that Father Gustavo Le Paige, a Belgian Jesuit priest, had collected from the area. In 1963 the Catholic University of the North opened its first pavilion. The museum now has several buildings including laboratories and a library and documentation building. The collection has around 380,000 pieces.
ix Corvalán visited a memorial site marking a former common grave that had contained twenty-six bodies executed during the Pinochet years. In July 1990 an unidentified informer told the families of the disappeared that the military was removing bodies from an unmarked grave. The operation was stopped and eventually the bodies were disinterred, identified, and subsequently buried elsewhere.