CURATOR’S COLUMN: EMILY AUSTIN ONFRAGMENTED DIALOGUES

Fragmented Dialogues at Austin/Desmond Fine Art, brings together conceptual artist Mario Fonseca and photographer Mauricio Valenzuela. The exhibition focuses on their work from the 1980s made whilst both artists were living and working in Santiago, Chile, under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; a regime characterised by repression as well as systematic arrests, tortures and disappearances. Despite two seemingly very different bodies of work, both artists intrinsically shared a strong dialogue around the notions of absence and prohibited identity.

The photographic image played a key role in Chilean art from this period. The aim to capture the reality of life under the dictatorship was paramount, but this carried a serious risk for all photographers. Indeed, the danger of imprisonment was a day-to-day reality for all those who took to the streets with a camera.  Mauricio Valenzuela photographed the street life of Santiago. His unconventional yet carefully constructed compositions, shot mostly in atmospheric conditions of heavy fog and low light, captured the climate of overwhelming despair and oppression that weighed on the city and its inhabitants.  His subjects remain anonymous, often with their faces cropped or obscured, this absence hints at the political censorship and questions freedom of expression. Valenzuela was a founding member of the Association of Independent Photographers (AFI), a group formed in the early 80s out of the need for protection which has recently gained historical significance.

The photographic image also played a key role for Mario Fonseca. Central to his work was his self-portrait, often with features partially obscured (for example by using a black stripe across his eyes or with his face covered in broken glass). By doing so he addressed the urgent need to express one’s true self, to be different, at a time when conformity, hiding one’s nature including political thoughts and beliefs, was a matter of survival.

Exhibited at Austin/Desmond Fine Art are the works from his seminal series ‘Habeas Corpus’ which refers to the judicial normative that guarantees the liberty of every individual. These works were overtly political and anti-establishment: a bold and daring statement against a censorial regime in which one’s existence was always at risk. Also included in the exhibition are a series of Polaroids entitled ‘L’observation de soi meme (the observation of oneself)’ in homage to Rene Magritte’s painting ‘La reproduction interdit (Not to be reproduced)’. Here Fonseca has his photograph taken from behind whilst he stares at a blank wall or blank television screen. His photograph is then taken again as looks at the photograph of himself. He is ‘watched’ by the viewer and then ‘re-watched’ by himself as his image develops on Polaroid; the author existing between presence and disappearance.

Fragmented Dialogues seeks to highlight the work of two, often excluded artists, who made key and historically important contributions to Chile’s artistic movement during the country’s darkest years.

EMILY AUSTIN

Fragmented Dialogues is on at Austin/ Desmond Fine Art until 30 June. For more information: http://www.austindesmond.com/exhibitions/future/2018/fragmented-dialogues-mario-fonseca-amp-mauricio-valenzuela-art-and-identity-in-1980s-chile/108

IMAGE: Mario Fonseca, Habeas Corpus 5b (2017), courtesy of CF-LART