I’m stood in a gallery on third floor of the Tate modern’s Natalie Bell Building and all around me are vibrant prints, patchwork quilts, and paintings in primary colours. A Spanish song plays on the speakers concealed in the top corners of the room, its soft guitar melody and muted falsetto vocals lending a further calm and quiet to the space’s already relaxed temper. At first glance, it would be hard to tell that the art occupying the gallery’s walls was in direct response to war, and specifically a war rooted in neocolonial politics and sociocultural violence.
A Year in Art: 1973, showing at the Tate Modern until October 2020, deals directly with the 1973 Chilean Coup D’Etat, exhibiting an interdisciplinary display of works from artists who’s home was the country at the centre of the infamous CIA plot to remove its first ever democratically elected leader. Behind the brightness and ostensible cheer of much of the work lie experiences of violence, statelessness and the lasting effects of an unjust war on the country’s population, the socially democratic values its government upheld, and the proliferation of art, creativity and community that flourished under its leader Salvador Allende’s rule.
Belonging to both artists residing in Chile at the time of the coup and those already belonging to various of the country’s international diasporas, the exhibition’s displays span the personal and public, traditional and contemporary, optimistic and dismal. Taking a closer look at the work and unveiling its pain, it’s impossible to not empathise with the struggle faced by its creators. One such artist, Cecilia Vicuña, found herself unable to return home after studying at London’s Slade School of Fine Art at the time of the American-backed coup. Her work, which adorns the walls of the gallery’s first room, presents a personal project to document her own daily experience of political exile.
From diary entries to sketches and photographs, Vicuña’s various ephemera offer a deeply personal glimpse into the individualised affects that the coup and subsequent war had upon those outside of Chile, left helpless and adrift as their beloved country descended into what would become almost two decades of fascist rule. But despite their upsetting insights into statelessness and what it means to be a victim of war, Vicuña’s everyday objects of revolution and resistance also show the power art and artists have in subverting authority and opposing injustice. One diary entry, blown up and centred in the display, details Vicuña’s motivations for her work. “I have not chosen to stay in England”, she writes, “I have nowhere to go, every place is nowhere, except for my place. Everything I do is to recover my place.” Though often heart-wrenching in their tales and small in material stature, it is contributions like these, to an artistic resistance which emerged from the coup, that remain telling of an unfaltering optimism that Chile would once again become a free and democratic country to which Vicuña and those like her could return.
Following suit through a series of portraits taken on the streets of Santiago de Chile, Alfredo Jaar’s Studies on Happiness seeks to subvert the idea that the then-nascent Pinochet government was successful in providing for its citizens. Displayed in medium format grandeur in the gallery’s second room, Jaar’s portraits depict his fellow Chileans in moments of community, happiness and leisure. One subject beams into the camera’s lens, while others play the guitar and socialise in the city’s streets. Reminiscent of the creative and social freedoms enjoyed under Allende, Jaar’s images and the people in them serve as resistance to the tyranny of the Pinochet government’s fascist rule, while simultaneously depicting what Jaar himself refers to as his ‘utopian idealism’; a powerful vision of both Chile’s past and the future its people were hopeful for.
Alongside the more established media of Jaar, Vicuña and the various other audiovisual works exhibited, A Year in Art: 1973 pays homage to an art form which, though historically rooted in a movement towards economic self-sufficiency for rural women in the country, found a particular pertinence as a tool for resistance under Pinochet: the Arpilleras. Colourful patchworks traditionally made from burlap, these hand-sewn depictions of resistance and hope are adorned with motifs of doves, sunrises and the gathering of people. Indeed it is these quilts that, upon entering the exhibition, give it an air of positivity and initially detract from the sense that they are steeped in the trappings of war and fascism. Yet it is in this initial misleading where the artwork’s resistive and subversive power reside. As with Jaar and Vicuña, the Arpilleras speak to themes of violence and suffering, yet do so through a lens of hope and political steadfastness, utilising their traditional, cheery colour palettes and handcrafted nature to betray any sense of a crestfallen resistance and, in the process, subvert the socio-political doom imposed upon them.
It is no secret that art and creativity can act as resistance to issues both political and personal. Yet what A Year in Art: 1973 does so well in reminding us is that this resistance need not heed to the doom and gloom of that which it seeks to dismantle. Walking from wall to wall, from photograph to embroidered message of hope, we see instead the power of artistic resistance to remain grounded in the joy and freedom it wishes to reinstate. Here, the ‘place’ described by Vicuña denotes not just the geographical Chile, but becomes a spiritual and emotional position of both the individual and collective psyche too; a place which breeds within the soul but spills onto the the artist’s page and, in doing so, spreads through transnational networks of solidarity until it is no longer deniable by the power it is in such fervent opposition to. Recovering this place, the work on display in A Year in Art: 1973 acts as motivation and guidance for any of us who find ourselves in trying and tumultuous times.
A Year in Art: 1973 will be on display in the Tate Modern until 18 October 2020.
Words, Edward John
Images, Tate Modern