PRINT March 1993


CONTEMPORARY AIR TRAVEL HAS replaced the individual’s instinctive sense of danger with the fiction that nothing could be more natural than being propelled thousands of feet above the earth at several hundred miles an hour. At takeoff, one respectfully lowers one’s reading material, muses for an instant, perhaps, on the miracle of aerodynamics, then slips gratefully back into a state of prolonged denial. Sometimes, if the landing is particularly smooth (or bumpy), a flurry of applause breaks out, effectively transforming passengers into audience, and pilots into seasoned old show-biz pros. Once the seat-belt sign goes off, the sleight-of-hand is complete: we shuffle on to our respective destinations, our collective experience of impending death displaced by the meaningless urgency of collecting our luggage.

A similar sort of denial appears in the art world, where a campaign has been underway in recent years to purge all sense of place from the presentation of works of art. An artist in Belgium or Canada sends his or her work off to a show in New York, Düsseldorf, Sydney, or Milan. It passes customs, the crates are opened, and the work is hung and lit. If the artist has been sent a plane ticket, he or she will go along. Curators of large international group shows painstakingly arrange artworks from Israel, Brazil, Sweden, and Korea to make them look as if brought together by an act of nature. Spectators, of course, are aware that they come from different places, but the effect survives of a seamless mechanism operating to promote all artists as “international” and all art as“global.” Each time we cross the threshold from street to gallery, we enter a zone that is mysteriously the same, in which conditions of time and space have been suspended.

Yet even as we absorb this message of fraternity, our imaginations may wander from time to time to the vast hidden network of crates, trucks, planes, couriers, inspectors, and registrars whose job it is to make us forget that they existed in the first place.

EVEN TO ITS NEIGHBORS, Chile can seem like a long way from anywhere. The Andes separate the country from the other two South American megastates, Brazil and Argentina; its northern landscape of desert, supposedly the world’s driest, seems remote from the highland exoticism one associates with Bolivia and Peru. It is the most British country in South America (in terms of social customs, that is), has the last Prussian military in the world, and tends to occupy itself as much with its opposites across the Pacific—especially Australia and Japan—as with the countries on its own land mass.

In the final analysis, though, Chile’s sense of distinctness arises less from remoteness or eccentricity than from a graver kind of difference. Ostensibly to underscore the point that this is the only Latin American country without a tropical zone, a committee of Chilean business and civic leaders (not artists) voted to send an iceberg to the pavilion representing their nation at Seville’s Expo ’92, where it provided self-regulating air conditioning as it gradually melted away into nothing. For a country perhaps unmatched in the proportion of its artists and writers living in exile, this image of evanescence in absence was a strangely revealing self-portrait.

Eugenio Dittborn’s art allows us to consider the personal and cultural repercussions of staying in Chile at a time when “everyone else” left: between 1973 and ’75, the military coup against the elected Communist government of Salvador Allende was followed by murderous reprisals against leftists, students, intellectuals, and other real and imagined members of the opposition. Dittborn sees these relatively recent events as deeply inscribed on the country’s collective psyche, and also as directly recalling the collision of indigenous and colonial cultures that has set the tone of the South American continent’s history. Using the metaphors of travel and home, he brings these two histories together in his art. At the same time, his conceptual program highlights certain of the hidden mechanisms through which the modern art world perpetuates itself.

To reconcile his positions as both a nonrefugee from, or rather in, a place visited by relatively few outsiders and a skeptical member of an art world that pays enthusiastic lip service to internationalism, Dittborn, in 1984, invented the format known as the “Airmail Painting.” Their parameters determined in good part by the fact that they are meant to move from place to place, and these movements to be recorded and incorporated into the works themselves, the “Airmail Paintings” brilliantly fuse the lucid transparency aimed for in Conceptual art with the esthete’s lust for a sensual object. The result is quite different from the Dada-inflected whimsicality of mail art. The system works as follows: from Santiago, the city of his birth, the artist carries on a more or less continual correspondence with a world that has situated him at its geographical edge. This correspondence takes the form of a coming and going of paintings through the mail. Requesting not that we overlook the vast distance between us and him, but that we fix our attention on it, Dittborn’s art confronts us with the meanings to be drawn from a situation of relative poverty, where limitations appear greatly to outweigh advantages. For this reason, and particularly when the images and texts in the work are drawn from the literature of journeys that have not ended as planned—kidnappings, disappearances, massacres, entombments—subject and format are synchronous to the point of being inseparable.

As a rule, Dittborn uses paint and photo-silkscreen to transfer his various visual materials onto sections of light cloth, which are then sewn into the surface of a larger (but equally flimsy) cloth “picture plane.” Pinned lightly to the wall, to accentuate their creases and lack of armature, the resulting works are easily taken down at the end of each exhibition, folded back into rectangles, placed in cardboard airmail envelopes, and sent on to the next destination. Showings of the “Airmail Paintings” include the envelopes in which the works have been shipped, with an updated itinerary hand-printed on the front. They are sometimes accompanied by two stacks of newspapers covering the same day in both the host city and Santiago; generally, the newspapers’ most striking import is the absolute lack of cultural correspondence between these two, usually distant points on the globe. In the face of such disparity, one finds it harder to minimize the profound feelings of rootlessness that can be induced by an age of jet travel, fax machines, and international group shows.

This state of displacement is a motif in Dittborn’s vision of all manifestations of culture. He represents it in his art through both symbolic and anecdotal means: the work’s diverse images include ancient mummies found frozen in the Andes, his young daughter’s drawings of faces, a Bruegel traveler with the world on his back, and newly discovered mass graves in northern Chile. Dittborn is not trying to single out “universal” particulars that might link human societies of every kind. Rather, he is constructing a bleak poetry out of the brutalities that have been displaced to the peripheries of the modern, humanistic universe. Orbiting the twin phenomena of travel and death, his images invoke the symbolic murder that too often takes place when one culture confronts another, or when an individual grapples with a society to which she or he has no “natural” ties.

Dittborn frequently resorts to autobiography and self-referentiality, sometimes on a playful level, as when he puns on his own name: in its Greek derivation, “Eugenio” means “well-born,” and variations on his family name such as “born-ditt” and “the unborn Dittborn” have appeared in recent works. Sometimes the brush with reality is close and unbearable: in To Travel, 1990, Dittborn includes a text about his sister Alejandra, an anthropologist who, while finishing fieldwork in Africa, bought him a traditional mask. On her journey back to South America, she stopped in Rome for a few days, was hospitalized with a high fever, and died of Malaria. The mask arrived with the rest of her things in Chile much later, and Dittborn includes images of it in the piece, in which a private horror of the mechanics of travel is juxtaposed with the compulsion to keep moving—and the need to bring something home.

In Dittborn’s work, Chile itself sometimes becomes a form of alter-ego. In the “Airmail Painting” To Travel, 1990, Dittborn incorporates the story of Jeremy Button, an Indian from Tierra del Fuego who was brought to England by Darwin on the Beagle, presented at court, taught English, educated, and generally made to feel like a gentleman. Tiring of the role after many years, he finally returned to his native land, where his latter days went unrecorded. On the surface, the story is a classic exemplar of the fate of indigenous people at the hands of whites. But Dittborn also sees it as a more generally applicable retelling of the experience of dislocation, and as an allegory of how his own art functions in the world. For Dittborn, the suspension of one’s will is central to the experience of travel, as is an acknowledgment, however tacit, of the possibility that one might never return. More important, those who journey always come home changed, their experience inscribed on their consciousness, just as the “Airmail Painting” envelopes faithfully record their various destinations.

Clearly, the travel that Dittborn charts is more than an accounting of comings and goings, more than a record of ETAs and exhibition schedules. In Roadrunner—Correcaminos, 1985–91 (and again in his 1991 publication Camino Way, where a fragment of marginalia quotes his own previous writing), Dittborn notes, “Envelopes contain Airmail Paintings like pregnant mothers contain their unborn children in amniotic fluid; like tombs contain white bones.” (Italics Dittborn’s.) If one’s life is already a journey through space and time, travel becomes a response to the enigma of perpetually locating oneself in the same place—that is, within the confines of one’s body.

In an art gallery or museum, checking the back of a painting to look for labels showing where it has been would almost certainly be seen as superfluous to the experience of the work. Such activities are usually performed by trained personnel behind closed doors. By exposing certain of the hidden hangers on which we suspend our disbelief before the work of art, Dittborn offers us the opportunity to reexamine some of the key premises of the world view that makes such a suspension possible, even necessary, in the first place. Of the many conditions he incorporates into the viewing of his paintings, perhaps none is as important as the designation of Santiago as the work’s point of origin—and of return. It is a quiet but potent reminder that outside New York or Paris there are real places in the world where art is made, and that those places are not just coordinates from which art is brought back for our amusement, to be absorbed by our unquenched appetite for the Other.

Dan Cameron is a free-lance curator and writer who lives in New York. He contributes frequently to Artforum.