« Dialogues for a New Millennium

Interview with Arturo Duclos

“The autonomy of kitsch comes from the disobedience of the Western canon, especially in areas like Latin America where it matters a damn.”

By Paco Barragán

Chilean artist Arturo Duclos was one of the youngest members of the so-called Escena de Avanzada, the political and conceptual movement in the mid-1970s and early 1980s that became the canon of the Chilean art scene against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military regime. Painting, for him, soon became the perfect conceptual tool to engage with concepts like language, human rights and utopia. We spoke to him on the occasion of his recent exhibition “El fantasma de la utopía/Utopia´s Ghost” at the Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI) in Santiago de Chile.

Paco Barragán - Let’s rewind and go back at to your beginnings. You were one of the younger members of the Chilean avant-garde, the so-called Escena de Avanzada that took place at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the ‘80s, with artists like Lotty Rosenfeld, Eugenio Dittborn, Carlos Leppe and Juan Dávila. What do you recall of your beginnings?

Arturo Duclos - I got in touch with the artists from the Escena de Avanzada in 1981, when they became interested in the projects we were developing together with other artists in the field of installation and political art. We should remember the context of the Pinochet dictatorship. We were studying at the Universidad Católica. We were a group of students experimenting with a kind of Latin American conceptualism in the workshop of Eduardo Vilches, very influenced by the writings of Luis Camnitzer, Art & Language and Joseph Kosuth. At that time, the university campus was transformed into a place for experimentation, meeting and discussion with these artists that you just mentioned and who, along with Nelly Richard, Raúl Zurita and Carlos Altamirano, visited us assiduously. Neither were there private galleries active, nor spaces for discussion, so our campus was transformed into a clandestine space that welcomed these artists. We, the group from the Universidad Católica, including Soro, Paredes, Rodríguez and many others, were inserted in the fervor of the movement Escena de Avanzada. We participated in that rupturist spirit, feeling part of its history.

Artist Arturo Duclos. Photo: Nico Deyer, Santiago de Chile.

P.B. - The Escena de Avanzada used a varied style of languages but was especially focused on performance, conceptual art and video. But you started primarily as a painter. How did that work out?

A.D. - I started in art when I showed my objectual artworks and urban interventions. My first works were related to the street and to objectual art. Originally, came to formation in engraving and graphics; later, I went over to painting, when with our university group we wanted to rebel against the Escena de Avanzada’s orthodoxy regarding painting, and especially against its critique of the most hedonistic groups that were known in the early 1980s. There was a very reactionary spirit towards painting. It was in 1983 when I started painting on human bones, and I also made some very political paintings. Then I made the decision to paint and develop a body of work that oscillated between painting and objectualism, where I would subtly focus on political issues and human rights, disguised as sumptuous Neo-Baroque ornaments and references. This was my most well-known work since 1989 and was included in several exhibitions later, linked to a way of doing the Escena de Avanzada, that is basically related to the language forms of the Escena that used to use many metonyms, ellipses and metaphors, but translating it to painting and turning it into more attractive discipline based on symbolic elements that could have a greater impact.

P.B. - You were having success at a very young age participating in international exhibitions and exhibiting in the 1990s with gallerist Annina Nosei in New York. How did that success affect your career? What do you remember of those years?

A.D. - I started working with Annina Nosei in 1993, and that same year I had my first solo show in New York. It was the beginning of the globalization of art and the advent of Latin American art in galleries and museums in the United States. Like all trends, at that time there was a boom in the circulation and sales of my works, which also happened with many artists who were part of the boom of the time and who worked with Annina Nosei: Schnabel, Galán, Kuitca, Basquiat and Bedia, among others. This wave began to fall very early in the late 1990s, and the same happened to Chinese, Japanese and Korean artists, the emerging galleries of Soho in the 1980s moved to Chelsea and the art world changed radically for our entire generation. I worked for 10 years with Annina, until she retired and only dedicated herself to represent a small group of artists as a private dealer. No doubt the lack of visibility began to affect my performance, and although I worked with other galleries in New York and the United States later, the glam and the presence of my work was very affected and was never the same as in that period of working with Annina Nosei.

Arturo Duclos, Je ne regret pas de rien, 1989, oil on curtain, 60.23” x 78.74.” Courtesy Private collection, Los Angeles. Photo: Jorge Brantmayer.


P.B. - With the advent of the new millennium, you disappeared a bit from the international scene. What happened?

A.D. - With the arrival of the year 2000, I participated in some important group shows in the United States and Latin America, as well as solo exhibitions in Chile, Peru, Argentina, Spain and Sweden. I was very involved in teaching and some academic projects in Chile, which reduced my presence in international fairs and events. Then, many people thought that I had withdrawn from the art scene, but I was only in hibernation mode. It was a period of great intensity and exchange with students, which also helped me to reinvent my work.

P.B. - I have seen with my own eyes after working in Chile that the art scene is very small and that the scene is very self-referential and not very open to foreigners, which together with the geographical isolation makes it very difficult to have any resonance on the international art scene from Chile. What are, in your opinion, the handicaps of the lack of presence of the Chilean art scene internationally?

A.D. - I think that the main problems of the Chilean art scene come from its geographic isolation, as well as from the absence of cultural policies for its diffusion. Collecting is also very recent. Collectors’ taste in Chile was in many cases historically conservative and didn´t enable the construction of a potential national art market. Although there is more openness in collecting today, many artists remain isolated from global trends, phenomena that I find interesting, so that local issues may arise that are of interest in the global world. Everywhere there are personal and local problems that today are reduced by the interest in globalization. In short, the disadvantage of the Chilean scene lies in its lack of dialogue with the world and in the lack of the construction of a narrative-for example, for the Escena de Avanzada-able to insert their masterworks and their theoretical articulation in the international art market, as the Brazilians have done so well with the Neo-Concretism, its artists and even with the new generations.

P.B. - Your painting has always been very conceptual and political. I remember, for example, a work like Je ne regret pas de rien (1989), which is symptomatic of your artistic practice. Can you comment on how you see painting in general, and this work in particular?

A.D. - My work has always been influenced by the political mark inherited from the Escena de Avanzada. A practice of artistic work that emerged as a reaction to Pinochet´s dictatorship then became a language for my way of thinking and expressing myself in art. In the specific case of the work you quote, Je ne regret pas de rien, I elaborate an ironic discourse on power, desire and death. I am generally interested in the language of painting because it is a permanent quote to history, and the meaning of a work of art should be inscribed in both the history of art and that of the image. In particular, I think that painting today has many limitations if we only think about new media that have opened other possibilities of expression, but it continues to be sensual, and that is why it is so attractive even as a language, in a dimension where the technology used is still of 20,000 years ago.

Arturo Duclos, Untitled (Flag), 1995, human bones and screws, 137.79” x 196.85.” Courtesy of the artist and Carlo Solari Collection, Santiago de Chile.

P.B. - In 1995, you made a polemic work titled Untitled (Flag): a wall sculpture simulating the Chilean flag made out of human bones. That was a very challenging and direct comment on Pinochet’s dictatorship.

A.D. - The work you are referring to is an epitome of human rights issues in Chile. From 1983 onwards, I have done many works using human bones as the main significant element. In this case, Untitled (Flag) was a work that related the meaning of the national flag with an empty flag-literally ‘in its bones’-without body, without flesh, alluding to the political conflict of the people who disappeared during the dictatorship, which in the context of the time was still being negated by the Chilean right-wing political parties. Today that work constitutes an object unique in Chile that has become a sort of transverse icon. In 2011, it was showcased in the “Crisisss” exhibition in Mexico City at the Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes for the anniversary of a century of the Mexican Revolution. Previously, this work toured to a dozen museums in the United States and Latin America together with the traveling exhibition “The Disappeared.”


P.B. - But let’s get back to the present and your touring exhibition that kicked off at the Museum of Visual Arts (MAVI) in Santiago de Chile. How did “El fantasma de la utopía/Utopia’s Ghost” come about?

A.D. - “El fantasma de la utopía/Utopia’s Ghost” emerges as a project first of consolidation and then as research, motivated by social movements that began to occur in Chile and the rest of the world. After the heydays of the social welfare state of the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium, we had to pay out the “bills of the sweet money,” and with it came indebtedness and social bankruptcy that has lead to a state of neo-slavery.

The revolutionary changes that came at the beginning of the 20th century with great promises and social utopias set fire to many a state of mind, generating a spirit of freedom and power that began to question the subversion of the Latin American order through armed struggle, a subversion that manifested itself against the Alliance for Progress initiated by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961. I return to this particular episode of social history as a revival and a ghost of those ideals that mobilized for almost five decades numerous movements that sought to produce changes in society through armed struggle. I am trying to grasp that particular spirit of the exchange of ideas and passions as a possible motor of struggle for today´s society under the new world economic order.

P.B. - The very title is tautological: according to Thomas More, utopia was a non-place, and with the word ‘ghost’ you’re forcing the idea of ​​fiction, of impossibility.

A.D. - I believe that religious, political and social thought throughout history has intervened in favor of the hegemonic narratives in order to create this idea of ​​freedom of this non-place as a promise of liberation of the individual, a place that will be accessed “after working as a mad dog” throughout your whole life, being that utopia basically is the secular version of paradise. The ghost then consists in bringing to the dissolution the fiction and impossibility of this reality that is offered as a placebo.
P.B. - In this sense, the Protestant view of utopia-paradise is very different from the Catholic one: If for a Protestant it was possible here and now, for a Catholic it was always a promise to be realized in the afterlife. In fact, I think that in the opposition, duty-guilt is where we find the different visions of utopia-paradise.

A.D. - The Catholic vision of utopia-paradise is an unverifiable promise and is what has also colored the political thinking of the 20th century. That is also why most of these revolutionary movements carried in their origins both the messianic spirit of Catholicism as well as Marxist thought. The Catholic promise was to be fulfilled after one’s death. It is interesting to analyze here though the political origins of these ideas mixed with the American neocolonial pattern. Then that latency of duty-guilt has to do with the heroic vision that these groups undertook with their social-political responsibility, having to generate a narrative for the people, a discourse that has its telos based on the liberation of guilt and duty, a sort of existentialist exculpation.

P.B. - Utopia went always hand in hand with messianism, a topic that has always been of great interest to you. The mythical and religious origins of utopia (even more than the positivistic ones, I would argue) have both stimulated and reenforced that messianic element that is common to so many revolutionary leaders and politicians (Castro, Allende, Chávez, etc.). How do you understand the relationship between utopia and messianism?

A.D. - Messianisms have always interested me and are part of the artistic project that I have been developing since the 1990s. From the use of cultural symbols based on the discourses of armament, religion, politics and science linked to capitalism, all have in common the same messianic spirit fueled by the promise of liberation. This is what happens today in political movements that point to a populism that is sustained on the same basis. If we go through history, all the promises of freedom have had the same origins and seek to satisfy people tired of abuse with the same messianic arguments contained in all the ideological manifestations of the individual. The very 20th century has been a parodic parade of cultural, political and religious movements that have raised the flag of the freedom of man-from psychoanalysis to Marxism, from the artistic avant-garde to the Islamic state. Therefore, this close connection between utopia and messianism shares, in my opinion, the same roots: the problem of freedom and how that freedom is achieved.

Arturo Duclos, Caporales, 2017, installation view at Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI, Santiago de Chile), dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and MAVI.

P.B. - As a matter of fact, the project you sent for the Chilean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2016 was precisely titled Messianism and Utopia.

A.D. - Yes, for the contest of the Pavilion of Chile in Venice 2016 I presented a project called Messianism and Utopia. I resorted to the symbolism and iconology of the flags of a representative selection of guerrilla and revolutionary groups and movements that we, in Latin America, traditionally associate with messianism and utopia: Tupamaros, EZLN, FARC, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), M-19, MIR, July 26, FPMR, MRTA and FSLN. With these images, I intended to build a one-to-one reconstruction in ephemeral architecture of Lenin’s funerary monument at the Red Square in Moscow.

In the 21st century, there seems to be no longer any place for utopia, and utopia would have become rather the new kitsch or, at least, a populist parody integrated and subordinated to neo-capitalism. We assume that for that reason studies, books and exhibitions about history and memory, and even nostalgia, are so in vogue. And since we also suppose that art has the capacity to disrupt and rethink new, fairer worlds, the question we ask ourselves is: What can we do to revert or reverse that utopia that feeds art as pathos and ethos? This research about messianism and utopia is a double investigation: On the one hand, it seeks to investigate how those ideas have spread in Latin America and ended up addressing humanity’s destiny in general and, on the other hand, we codify through its failure or discredit-as Lyotard would say- insofar as it relates to any grand narrative or meta-narrative that contains in itself the promise of utopia. Messianisms have become the main axis-engines for the construction of economic power based on military, religious, scientific and political narratives. All messianisms, whether of religious or secular origin, have promised certainties-sometimes achieved-and have sponsored exclusions and persecutions to impose the domination of their ideas through force. What these great messianic narratives have in common are the infallible messages constructed in an unattainable illusion, often centered on a positivist utopia.

P.B. - And then you participated in the Nuit Blanche Toronto on 1 Oct., 2016, with the intervention Fallen Flags, which is a continuation of the proposal for the Chilean Pavilion and an antecedent to the project you did recently at the Museum of Visual Arts (MAVI).

A.D. - Yes indeed, the Toronto project helped me to try and find out how powerful these images are still today. The fallen flags deposited literally on the street became a sort of carpet that was to be humiliated and dominated by Western culture. I know that it sounds, in an old-fashioned way, a bit “lefty,” but it is precisely the power of icons and what they represent that moves our feelings and ideas against the injustices of the system. This view of the surrendered flags is a metaphor for the ‘end of ideas,’ when the flame of avant-garde ideas and revolution has waned against the Western cultural system.


P.B. - How did the installation Caporales come about? Why were you attracted by that particular element, which is characteristic of popular culture, and where we find a strange mix of mythic, religious and political discourse?

A.D. - Caporales is the name given by the dance groups from the South American Altiplano (high plateau) to the “foreman,” usually a mulatto or mestizo who commanded the African slaves that took them to Bolivia at the time of the colony. It was this character who later became for the popular religious dances the inspiration for the dance fraternity groups representing a leadership and power role in the group.

I was interested in these popular festivals because of their connection with the Andean culture and, in turn, how this Andean culture of social hierarchy created a resonance in the leftist revolutionary movements that emerged during the 1960s as, for example, ELN, Sendero Luminoso, MRTA and ML 19. There is a close correspondence between the emergence of political groupings in the 1960s with the doctrine of the Alliance for Progress implemented from the United States to combat the advance of communism in Latin America and the rise of the religious dance fraternities, which were popping up in the Andean area, in Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile and Argentina.

So I am interested in reading these double configurations that come from the unconscious of popular culture, which supplants the paramilitary groups with this hierarchical regime based on religious dance groups. For this purpose, I elaborated in this installation called Caporales a mix between the languages ​​of the ornamental display, the brightness and the fiesta along with the most significant emblems of some Latin American revolutionary groups and movements.

P.B. - Also in the installation Escudo de armas/Coat of Arms, you return once again to popular mythology.

A.D. - Escudo de armas/Coat of Arms corresponds to the oldest heraldic representations. That is why this correspondence effort between these armed groups of wanting to represent themselves in these formats that concern rather the Medieval armies draws my attention. The flags, emblems and banners are all signs grouped under collective ideas that pertain to certain communities that are identified under these signs.

Using elements that I researched from Andean popular culture, I have reinterpreted these coats of arms by mixing these codes and also recharging the signifiers to connote the political speeches and “betrayals” that took place between the actors of the time. The National Liberation Army, for example, led by Che Guevara appears represented by a lamb skin. On the other hand, the 26th of July Movement wears a fox skin. I wanted to shift the semiotic discourse towards an interpretative and poetic field adopting certain totemic forms that adapt popular mythologies and that constitute an axis in this particular aspect that I am giving to the social utopias that mobilized these revolutionary forces.

P.B. - The idea of ​​kitsch flies over both installations. Is utopia the new kitsch?

A.D. - Kitsch in this exhibition represents for me the autonomy from the Western cultural paradigm, especially when we understand how politically incorrect it becomes towards high culture. The autonomy of kitsch comes from the disobedience to the Western canon, especially in areas where globalization matters a damn, since they have known how to maintain their identitarian aspects as a kind of cultural insurrection, almost involuntary, where the aesthetic values ​​of the global culture are not recognized. In that sense, for me, utopia is a new kitsch that insists in its insubordination and its resistance to being delegitimized and remains a kind of nostalgia in our inner self.

Arturo Duclos, Machina Anemica, 2017, installation view at Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI, Santiago de Chile), flags and fans. Courtesy the artist and MAVI.

P.B. - You also included the performance Polvo de estrellas/Stardust, in which you were sitting on the floor with a mortar and pestle grinding human bones for approximately one hour. There is an interesting connection between science, mythology and philosophy here at play.

A.D. - Polvo de estrellas/Stardust is a performance that reflects on the proposal of the scientific origin of biological life on earth. Astronomer Harlow Shapley coined the concept in 1929. He argued that organic beings that call themselves “human” are made of the same material as the stars. This would have been produced by the carbon that traveled through the galaxies in the supernova explosions, creating dust hurricanes that finally gave rise to our planet and its organic life, thus enabling human existence. In this performance, I explore the poiesis of the life cycle along with the generation of these chemical components in an act of inverse reduction from the same human body connecting the great questions that arise from the local cosmogonies and the interpretations about the origin of the world that come from science and religion. The proposal has a ritual and philosophical origin that raise how, from the interpretation of the brutality of cosmic events, we can trigger processes of creation that allow us to elaborate the great cultural and ideological narratives that make up human culture.


P.B. - In the last installation, which is entitled Machina Anemica, you have reduced utopia both conceptually and formally to a zero degree. Does this imply that utopia is impossible, and has it ceased to be relevant?

A.D. - I wanted to experience in this installation the emptiness of meaning in terms of the saturation present in the other pieces of the show. I think that more than saying that utopia is irrelevant and impossible, I wanted to propose a mechanical device to refill that void again. A new air is blowing and inviting us to reflect, to fill with ideas the poverty of contents that both the national and international political panorama offers us today. These have ceased to be flags of struggle but continue to be utopian in movement. It is a call to stamp these flags again with fresh ideas.

Arturo Duclos, Coat of Arms, 2017, installation view at Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI, Santiago de Chile), dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and MAVI.

P.B. - I would like to finish our conversation with the following question: Although it is clear that we have lost faith in human happiness and prosperity, the image of utopia keeps captivating our imagination. Why is that, in your opinion?

A.D. - Because against all odds, 99 percent of the human population has not stopped believing that it will have an opportunity to be happy, very much in spite of our rulers or our living conditions. Throughout history, we have known how utopia has been mutating and taking different faces, transcending religious faith, political fervor, armamentism and scientific discourse. From Plato to Thomas More, virtuous men have always wanted to be surrounded by more just societies.

The image of utopia is still captivating because it is part of our ethos; it constitutes us as humans. Contrary to the discredit and the nostalgia that utopia implies today from the pragmatics of advanced capitalism and postmodernity, social forces are measured in the effort to achieve progress for the following generations, even if the road towards that utopian republic is very tiny.

P.B. - Thank you very much.

Paco Barragán is the visual arts curator of Centro Cultural Matucana 100 in Santiago, Chile. He recently curated “Intimate Strangers: Politics as Celebrity, Celebrity as Politics” and “Alfredo Jaar: May 1, 2011″ (Matucana 100, 2015), “Guided Tour: Artist, Museum, Spectator” (MUSAC, León, Spain, 2015) and “Erwin Olaf: The Empire of Illusion” (MACRO, Rosario, Argentina, 2015). He is author of The Art to Come (Subastas Siglo XXI, 2002) and The Art Fair Age (CHARTA, 2008).