Alfredo Jaar: An Artist for Chile and Beyond

The latest issue of Paula has an interview with the artist Alfredo Jaar. I was delighted to stumble upon this article, especially since I only picked up Paula to get me through the take-off portion of my flight. As the video above demonstrates, Jaar is an arresting speaker and last year in Santiago I had the pleasure of hearing him talk about his project for Chile’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

In his interview with Paula Jaar made a comment about the legendary Escena de Avanzada, which I translated and transcribed below:

Jaar was born into a family of doctors, where he was expected to continue the tradition. But he upset the order [of things] and registered for Architecture, his official profession since he never studied Art. While [at university] he devised [the idea] to convert architecture into art: he didn’t fabricate buildings but rather, directly, experiences. His formation allowed him to systematically and ambitiously tackle each artistic project, which has been fundamental to the level he has achieved. Nonetheless, he confesses, despite his international success, his father never approved of his choice. 

But the “ninguneo” (black sheep) went far. Before leaving for New York, Jaar completed the work Estudios sobre la felicidad (Studies On Happiness). In it, like an eccentric reporter, he recorded thousands of Chileans on video, asking them if they were happy. He also occupied publicity spaces and roadside fences with the same question: “Are you happy?” Some responded, others dodged [him], but no one was indifferent. The question appeared basic, even stupid. But it was tremendously political in a dictatorial context that was marked by repression and fear. It was a very advanced work for its moment, one of the first art interventions in a public space and it had great impact. But Jaar was an outsider since he hadn’t studied at an art school and he didn’t belong to circles of artists identified with those schools. Like many Chileans that have had success abroad, he suffered indifference from the local art circuit, led at that moment by the Escena de Avanzada movement. “For me Estudios sore la felicidad was a rejected work in the artistic medium (…) Perhaps there was astonishment, fear, meanness, a mixture of things (…) In retrospect, I appreciate that they treated me poorly because it propelled me to say: ‘well, if that’s how they’re going to treat me, I’ll leave them behind and go somewhere more open.’ Therefore, I owe them my career,” he confessed twenty years later in the book Alfredo Jaar: gritos y susurros (Editorial Contrapuntal, 2009).

Though I study twentieth-century Chilean art and architecture, Alfredo Jaar has never really been on my radar. It’s as much my fault as that of the Chilean canon of art history. Jaar’s reflections about the 1980s Chilean art scene struck me because he pinpoints his status as an outsider within Chile. Once he left this categorization persisted though in recent years he’s been welcomed back into the fold: in 2013 he was given the Premio Nacional de Arte, a top honor for artists in Chile.

Yet, this doesn’t necessarily make Jaar a “Chilean artist.” For me, Jaar is an artist with Chilean origins but he belongs to the world. In a manner similar to the case of Roberto Matta. I imagine him on the rainy streets of Paris among the Surrealists rather than in Chile. Perhaps an artist that made a tremendous mark on the art scene of one country can be classified by that nationality, like Nemesio Antúnez; or an artist who continues to weave in their nation of birth, like Cecilia Vicuña, is still considered a citizen despite living abroad. The Chilean diaspora is a complex case of short and long-term exile. Though it’s not a widely discussed topic, which will hopefully receive more attention in the coming years, Chileans have always been circulating between Chile and the outside, even during the dictatorship (the Chile Vive exhibition, Eugenio Dittborn’s airmail paintings, etc.). I’m not invested in measuring the degree of Chileanness among artists, it’s an uninteresting exercise. What fascinates me are the ways artists of Chilean descent relate to this country, even if their work doesn’t engage with what is defined as “Chile.”

On a side note it is worth mentioning that many Chilean visual artists were trained as architects: Alfredo Jaar (Universidad de Chile), Roberto Matta (Universidad Católica de Chile), and Nemesio Antúnez (Universidad Católica de Chile) to name a few. This tradition is in large part due to the fact that architecture schools predated art schools in Chile by decades. Therefore many of the old guard (Matta, Antúnez) really had no option. Even once art schools emerged, architecture remained a reliable discipline in Chile since it offered a creative outlet along with a practical application. This no doubt satisfied curious applicants and appeased their nervous parents.

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