Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the first of three posts by the author, the third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.
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While preparing this project one day, I was perusing Chilean regional news outlets for details about the December 2021 fire that damaged or destroyed a number of houses in Castro, the capital of the Isla Grande de Chiloé, when I noticed that multiple sources referred to the island as a “tourist” destination. Maybe it’s the just intellectual vanity that goes with being the sort of curator who leaves New York City to come to a remote corner of South America, but it felt weirdly like a slap in the face to see this little-known (outside of Chile) place that I’d been steadfastly exploring for a future curatorial project seemingly transformed by a single word into a locale that would be for, well, tourists. In my mind it didn’t matter that Chiloé’s famed palafito stilt houses and 17th- and 18th-century wooden churches attract visitors worldwide, or that the more secluded corners of Chiloé I’d scouted on previous trips had everything a moderately resourceful traveler would need for a splendid visit. Never mind either that Prospect New Orleans, my post-Katrina effort to contribute to that city’s cultural rebuilding, was premised entirely on the conceit that biennial tourists would provide a meaningful boost to the city’s fortunes (as they have). Was it too much to want Alrededores — “Surroundings” in English (my working title) — to occupy a heretofore untrammeled cultural sphere that transcended such worldly categories? After all, launching an island Documenta — or was it a wet Desert X? — with a built-in capacity to sustain itself over time isn’t something a curator does for tourists.
My flash of pique at reading Chiloé so described is curiously linked to my personal history with Chile, which I first visited exactly 30 years ago, using the last of my expiring TWA frequent flyer miles. I’d wanted to jump start the process of familiarizing myself with South American art in the early 1990s, bringing the same level of attention and focus that I’d applied to European art following my first trip abroad 10 years prior. While Argentina, Brazil, and Chile are equivalent distances from New York, Chile seemed more out of reach; I was unsure whether I’d get there if I didn’t seize the opportunity. Ironically, I’ve returned consistently to Chile over the years, precisely because I thought I wouldn’t otherwise get to know it. This was summarized by the word that the Santiago-based artist Eugenio Dittborn would employ five years later as his title for a survey exhibition I curated of his signature pinturas aeropostales (airmail paintings) at the New Museum: Remota. In 1992 I hardly knew anybody who possessed firsthand information about Chile, and that made it irresistible.
During our initial meeting at his studio in Santiago, I shared with Dittborn my very ambitious itinerary, which included Santiago, Valparaiso, Easter Island, and the northern cities of Iquique and Antofagasta, plus a side excursion to Bolivia (I was mildly obsessed at the time with the purported Rapa Nui/Tiwanaku connection popularized in the mid-20th century by Thor Heyerdahl and Erich von Däniken). I neglected to include Chiloé on that list, because my Lonely Planet guide research suggested it lacked the obvious drama held by anticipated future destinations like Torres del Paine and San Pedro de Atacama. Dittborn responded that in the future, I should visit the southernmost art museum in the world, in Castro, and perhaps consider organizing an exhibition there. He then told me about MAM Chiloé’s formation in the later years of the Pinochet dictatorship, when a group of Santiago artists concluded that the country’s central authority had no incentive to censor artists showing their work at the furthest geographic margins of the state, so they built a space of their own on the outskirts of Castro, designed by the architect Eduardo Feuerhake. Alas, Dittborn’s invitation worked almost like a jinx: for the next 20 years, despite multiple returns to Chile and a few curatorial collaborations with him, I never made it to Chiloé and the hypothetical exhibition was never mentioned again between us. At the time I wrote it off as impractical, with limited potential for success; I had no idea how to get it started, or why, but the notion never fully left my imagination.
I finally made it to Chiloé in 2015 with the artist Gianfranco Foschino, who spent time there growing up, and what Dittborn said to me back in his studio a quarter century earlier quickly made sense. It helped that Gianfranco was personally enthusiastic about organizing a contemporary art exhibition in Chiloé, but what became less clear once we’d made our initial reconnaissance of the island was whether or not MAM Chiloé was the ideal venue for a project that would function largely as a platform for local artists. After spending time with and talking to various artists living on the island, it seemed that, for most, the museum functioned as a venue for artists based in Santiago. If I wanted to see where local artists showed, I’d need to dig a little deeper into the patchwork of regional museums, municipal libraries, gallery-cafés, and community centers, which tended to be scattered all over Chiloé, and on the nearby islands of Quinchao and Lemuy.
My last time in Chiloé, in November 2019, coincided with the mass social upheaval that led to a constitutional assembly and the sweeping recent election of a young progressive, Gabriel Boric, as President. I was in Santiago for several days and witnessed demonstrations firsthand, after which I spent nearly two weeks driving by myself around Chiloé, bouncing from one Airbnb to another, meeting again with artists and other colleagues, and exploring sites for future exhibition purposes. During that visit, I started envisioning Alrededores more as a long-term curatorial endeavor, where instead of artworks appearing for one season and vanishing, some might require years even to come to fruition. That would place the project closer in spirit to the niche that the Chilote artist Chumono opened up with his site-specific Muelle del Alma (“Pier of the Soul”), which since its 2005 construction has become emblematic of art and nature co-existing on mutually beneficial terms. Thousands of visitors each year park their cars near the village of Cucao and hike nearly three miles through verdant hills and pastures to the westernmost edge of the island. There, according to Chiloé folklore, the boatman Tempilcahue will someday ferry them to the afterlife; fittingly, Chumono’s wooden ramp visually beckons visitors up into the sky and out over the Pacific Ocean.
For the past two years I’ve had the opportunity to think about my broader objectives on various projects, including Alrededores. What had become the most exciting part of my plan was the possibility that Chiloé’s artists might end up with an international context for their work, without rupturing the sociocultural framework of their lives. The art was already there — I had already been surprised by its depth, and it was simply a matter of introducing the world to it. Even if cultural tourism, broadly speaking, was on a temporary hiatus as new waves of COVID spread worldwide, other avenues could bring the public to the art of Guillermo Grez or Anelys Wolf, or to the sole-proprietor storefront Museum of the Accordion in Chonchi. The latter, a modest but beloved establishment, preserves an integral part of the musical legacy left through centuries of ships — on which the accordion was that rare instrument capable of surviving adverse conditions — rounding Tierra del Fuego to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which slowed to a crawl after the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal. Part of the original Alrededores concept had been to move the museum’s collection — acquired long ago from sailors who left their accordions for repair and never returned — temporarily to MAM Chiloé, while putting some TLC into the museum’s display and conservation in Chonchi, where exhibits are typically set out on folding tables with hand-written labels.
This month I’m returning to Chiloé for the fifth time in eight years — far more than I’ve gone anywhere else so far away in the same period — and I’m traveling with a friend and fellow curator, Ramón Castillo, who too was somewhat smitten by the original Alrededores concept. But now I’m less set on bringing the world to the island’s proverbial doorstep in the form of a sprawling international exhibition. Back when I was still thinking along those lines, such an ambitious curatorial undertaking might have drawn positive international attention to this locale at the outer fringes of the Americas, while taking first steps toward a cultural policy that could potentially empower future Chilotes to interact with their national and international counterparts on an equal footing. For these reasons, I’m not entirely ruling it out for the future. But if the plan isn’t to produce works of art on Chiloé by an environmentalist like Olafur Eliasson, or a Chilean artist with local ties like Cecilia Vicuña, why do I keep returning, and what exactly am I looking for? I might be barely eking out a living at times, and yet here I am, putting hard-earned funds into research on this island many thousands of miles away from the island I live on, in pursuit of something that compels me to return over and over again, and to continue dreaming of a truly marvelous future art exhibition that I may never end up organizing.