The Aesthetic Dimension of Erasure: Voluspa Jarpa on Twenty Years of Recovering Trauma

Voluspa Jarpa, "Biblioteca de la No-Historia - preguentas y respeustas," 2012. Toulouse, France. Courtesy the artist.

When my Skype interview with Voluspa Jarpa begins, her face is sandwiched between two huge lips like a Tour de France winner being pecked by podium girls. The artist sits in her Santiago living room in front of a large canvas where two lovers kiss, Pintar como Querer (Painting as Wanting) (1998). At the end of our conversation, I ask her about this and she confesses that it was inspired by Giotto’s Kiss of Judas. A kiss that hid betrayal and so much more.

Jarpa painted the work in 1998, the same year that the Clinton administration declassified thousands of documents that revealed the political interference of the United States in Latin American countries during the Cold War. That same year, Clinton staged kisses with his wife in front of the cameras. The intent was to reaffirm his love in the middle of a marital and political crisis, after the nation learned about his infidelity with Monica Lewinsky.

In those heady days Jarpa remembers being shocked by the documents’ revelation that the CIA participated in Chile’s 1973 coup – the same that installed the criminal dictatorship of Pinochet. She decided to put away her brushes (she was painting with oil on canvas at that time) and turned to the process of investigating declassified documents, setting off a reconfiguration of her visual language that would last nearly twenty years. Jarpa concluded her epic task in 2015, but the declassification and revelation of dark secrets continues to this day. The week before we spoke, the United States released more papers and audio from its archive that confirmed their role as a decades-long villain in South and Central America.

Across two decades of working with declassified documents as raw material, Jarpa has analyzed each archive from aesthetic and ethical points of view. In 2010 she launched the Biblioteca de la No-Historia (Library of Non-History), making this material available to viewers through 608 books filled only with the black censor marks from 10,000 of these documents. In subsequent years the project unfolded into installations in which declassified documents would fly, expand, become gigantic, become sculptural objects, or be reduced to only the redactions which concealed names, places, and dates.

Voluspa Jarpa, “Biblioteca de la No-Historia – Proyecto Dislocación,” 2012. Santiago, Chile. Photo: Rodrigo Merino.

Jarpa’s investigative and artistic engagement with the documents culminated in a 2015 exhibition at the MALBA Museum in Buenos Aires, En Nuestra Pequeña Region de Por Acá (In Our Small Region of Around Here). Jarpa used the archives as a backdrop, along with photographs, sound devices, and paintings. The show also included portraits of public figures from Latin America, “who held administrative positions in the State or in civil organizations, and who were victims of political assassinations or unsolved crimes.” Jarpa linked the subtractive sculptural act of the censored declassified documents to North American Minimalism, through furniture inspired by Donald Judd’s installations. It’s a discipline that peaked alongside US interventions, and was far from being politically involved with them, but still was, in Jarpa’s opinion, aesthetically colder than the Cold War. In that same exhibition, she debuted the video Translation Lessons (2012-2016), in which the artist tries to learn English through an assisted reading of the CIA archives. It underlines, with intelligence and humor, the fact that in order to understand the intra-history of Latin America, you have to learn a colonial language.

To represent Chile for the 58th Venice Biennale, in 2019, Jarpa presented a new project, Altered Views. Although no longer linked to the CIA archive, it continued to investigate the origins of violence in Latin America. This line of thought is further extended in her current exhibition at Museum Arhem in the Netherlands, in which she investigates the Chilean Social Uprising and “its obscene figures of youth blindness as a metaphor for power.” In this interview, conducted in Spanish and translated, we talk about betrayal: of an artist to a canon, of language, of hegemony, and of power.

After working for nearly twenty years with CIA documents, how did you feel about the latest declassification, which finally confirms the US’s political interference in Chile?

As someone who has dedicated time to reviewing files that go from 1966 onwards, this news does not surprise me at all. But I do believe that it is important that this political behavior becomes explicit, especially if there are people who continue to doubt what happened. The audio between Nixon and Kissinger, like the one in which they say, verbatim, “We are going to make the Chilean economy scream,” or that [their] intervention was going to remain unnoticed. Latin American regions have historically been intervened in by the notions of North American capitalist-colonialism. The Chilean case is paradigmatic because its society decides to rebel against the model by voting in Salvador Allende as president. What strikes me the most is how little all this mattered: that one state intervenes in another, with dead, tortured, and systematically disappeared people in the midst of silence.

Voluspa Jarpa, “Translation Lessons” (video stills), 2014.

When the first massive declassification of documents appeared in 1998, what was it that interested you, or seemed more relevant from an artistic point of view?

I already had a question about the way in which Chileans somatized history while conducting an investigation into hysteria. Certain collective psychological behaviors corresponded to expressions of a traumatized psyche: that something that could not be said was due to the lack of sovereignty. The declassification occurred when Bill Clinton, wanting to set an example as a Democrat – they always want to be better than Republicans – says that Chileans have the right to know their history, and in ’98, how curious, since we had not had that right before. That declassification, for many reasons, psychologically broke the agreed political transition, because the complicit sector of the dictatorship that was still holding a great amount of power is portrayed [some members of the government were collaborators of the dictatorship, and appear in the papers] in a country in which Pinochet was still a senator for life. That historical moment caught my attention. On the other hand, time passes – ten years following that declassification – and no Chilean wants to look at those documents, except those that are directly affected. Not sociologists, not historians, much less artists. It is understandable, because there is great humiliation, and they are very traumatic.

The experience of working with those files completely changed me artistically. It was a challenge to leave comfort zones and rethink the artistic language. I was not prepared to face these files of traumatic psycho-politics. In fact, I worked with them erratically for at least ten years, without being able to create a work that seemed, to me, to have something to do with what was there. It was a period of rehearsals that destroyed everything I knew about art until then. I managed to find a way to do it with the Library of Non-History.

One of the things that caught your attention the most was the aesthetic dimension of the erasure.

And its ethical dimension. The psychic experience of the erasure was very dystopian. Very pathetic too: the administration of historical events and also the reluctance of many Chileans to know that part of their history. The Chilean intelligentsia had to be challenged in some way. How is it possible to have 200,000 pages of documents about your country and not react? In these erasures there are tortured, dead, disappeared, persecutions, exiles. There is also a human dimension that appears in a bureaucratic document in the vilest way. All the migratory movements derived from the intervention of the United States in Latin America, and now you hear complaints about migration in your country, well, what do you expect?

In those 20 years of research I imagine that some discoveries would be more painful than others.

It is difficult to say which was the worst. The concrete observation that this region of the world had no sovereign possibility of deciding upon its destiny is something that I have been verifying during these 20 years. It is not a naive question about power: one wonders how long this is going to happen, and in this way. Now, perhaps the case of Guatemala stands out, which is simply a horrific genocide that has been ongoing for many decades. I was also learning that this is something that nobody wants to know or talk about, until today. I have always noticed a resistance from any ideology, left or right, and in my generation or the previous ones. I also did that work thinking about those who are going to come in the future, and who are going to find this. We must pave the way for the new generation, which will experience less censorship. When I imagined these guys, different from the ones I was dealing with, I said “ah, well, that’s what it’s all about.”

Did you also notice that same resistance from the media? I ask this question because some of the press, such as El Mercurio, which is the main newspaper in Chile, appeared to be implicated in several of the declassified documents as an accomplice to the political interference of the United States and an active collaborator of the Pinochet dictatorship.

I never appeared in El Mercurio as an artist. I showed up when they had no choice. But interviews, no. Nor am I America’s favorite artist. I fully understand why it should be so.

The political interference of the United States is no longer as visible as it was then, but do you think that the US continues to exercise it in another way?

Yes. What happens is that the United States is experiencing the decline of its hegemonic process, basically because of the eruption of China. But the capitalist system is based on that, where there are countries that extract wealth from others in order to continue growing. That is the bottom line of the Cold War, an economic problem that comes from the industrial revolution: a need for cheap raw materials with cheap labor.

Voluspa Jarpa, “Translation Lessons” (video still), 2014.

I would like to mention, perhaps due to its exceptional nature among your works with declassified documents and due to its touch of humor, the video Translation Lessons (2016). In this work there is a painful and serious background, but there is also a moment of relaxation.

It was the end of the process, shown in the exhibition which I did at MALBA, which meant closing the job with the documents. It has a very feminine perspective of how women live, and that we have a great capacity to immerse ourselves into pain. We don’t have the male problem of the rejection of pain. We know how to suffer. It is something physical, bodily, we open ourselves to let suffering enter our body, and we accept it until it comes out. Translation Lessons staged that aspect. The teacher, who is a literary friend of mine, Nicolás Poblete, is very theatrical, and he teaches English. I gave him an instruction, which of course was unpleasant to me, that was: you as a man are going to teach me English, a language that I have never wanted to learn, a sign of colonialism that one should rebel against, and I am going to accept that idiomatic, gendered, and historicized subordination. In addition, I’m absorbing the knowledge of information that I do not want to enter into myself either. It has something performative and physical: the language as something that enters your body. Nicolás loved and enjoyed his role, and of course I was suffering all the time. I just wanted to kill him. There was something funny but wicked.

In the exhibition in which you showed Translation Lessons, you also exhibited installations that contained part of the declassified documents, and which were based on works of Minimalism. Why did you make that connection?

There is something biographical about it, akin to my resistance to the English language. It was from a discussion with a Latina curator who lived in the United States. We were talking about how relevant Minimalism was. I said that it was not relevant as a vanguard, as a canon, in countries with our history, because it would be contradictory. She got very angry, because for her Minimalism was a canon. It seemed like it had been injected into her art studies. I realized that there was something interesting there which was hegemonic-canonical. I understood that it was what discomforted me, since Minimalism represents a language that seemed openly fascist to me. And it still seems that way to me. Anything that is pure and clean is always going to look fascist to me. And above all, it seemed very curious to me that it had happened at the same time when the United States surreptitiously intervened in the fate of South American governments, which was during the Cold War. It seemed like the symbolic construction of the triumph of the Empire through some artists who should have had an ethical obligation of engaging with everything that their governments were producing in the rest of the world. It seemed to me like a failed avant-garde, dirty, in the face of that apparent cleanliness that seems very ominous. On the other hand, there were also racial and gender issues as well as a third layer: one day the classified documents of the diffusion and financing of Minimalism will appear, just as we have those of the diffusion and financing of Abstract Expressionism.

Voluspa Jarpa, “En Nuestra Pequeña Región de por Acá,” from “lo que ves es lo que es / Judd Cubos.” MALBA, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2016.

I saw that exhibition, and I remember feeling doubt while observing that direct connection you make with Minimalism. My question is: why should all artists reflect on their work a posture of explicit rebellion against their country’s foreign policy, and why use the work of Donald Judd to show declassified documents, an artist who declared himself on the left, and against the war in Vietnam?

Well, if you weren’t taking a position against the Vietnam War then, I don’t know what else has to happen, but there is an aesthetic-ethical aspect to it. When you say that not all artists should position themselves, I am not so sure about that. I believe that artists should position themselves, because he who does not position himself is in fact positioning himself. And on the use of Judd’s work: my work is intended to break that canon that his work represents. Literally: Judd’s work is destroyed, opened, and declassified documents come out of it. Sadly for Judd, if you investigate how his work was financed, I bet there’s a good chance he was promoted by the government. We artists deal with the use of our work by power, we are not naive. That work has been shown in the United States and it offends. But I am offended by Donald Judd, sorry.

We have touched on patriarchy in the sphere of power and culture.

I have a lot of experience in that, Juan José.

On one occasion you declared that “The history of the world is seen as an eternal relationship of power, between those who are destined to be sovereign and those who have no choice but to be subdued.” It is a conclusion that you drew after all your years of working with declassified documents, and it is something that’s also latent in your proposal for the Chilean Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. You are no longer speaking of the political interference of the United States, but you do speak of the subordinate and sovereign relationship with the hegemony of the patriarchy in the background.

Yes. The hegemony of the patriarchy not only subjugates women but also the possibility of ethics in men. When I finished the montage at MALBA and sat down to watch the 47 Latin American leaders whose deaths are suspicious, there is not only a problem with gender and race, but with masculinity itself, with the man who represents a community. For example, the speech of Gaitán [Jorge Eliécer] when he says: “I am no longer a man, I am a people.” That masculinity exists too, and it’s exciting. In the end you realize that what remains in power is the worst part of masculinity, that it is not the only form of masculinity.

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