Santiago, Chile

Cristóbal Lehyt

Fundación Telefónica

In “The Penultimate Landscape,” Cristóbal Lehyt presented a compelling meditation on systems of representation and the impossibility of communicating an “authentic” national identity. The artist, a Chilean living in New York since 1995, explored these contradictions, inconsistencies, and contrasting modes of nationality through three precisely crafted new works named after places in Chile: Pomaire (all works 2009), a town outside Santiago known for its pottery; Antofagasta, a key port city in northern Chile, once part of the Inca Empire; and La Costa, the Pacific coastline that threads down the length of this sliverlike country.

The exhibition departed dramatically from the artist’s previous work, typically “lo-fi” constructions using video, photocopy, or pencil drawing. Pomaire is a monumental accumulation of hundreds of handmade clay objects—pots, plates, containers, and piggy banks, seemingly crushed into one another either by accident or as the result of a geological collision. Here, Lehyt takes on concepts of discontinuity and rupture. The brute strength and size of the work—which make the viewer uneasily aware of his smallness—seem a long way from the ephemeral and understated approach in previous pieces. Likewise, the scale of Antofagasta is central to its impact. Constructed in plywood to the exact size of a shipping container, its dimensions make it a visual metonym for global movement or traffic. Through a
 cutaway window, we could see an interior room with small objects, apparently archaeological relics. Yet in contrast to the container itself, the meaning of these objects seems deliberately obscured, as if the passage of time has inexorably erased from them any significance.

La Costa was the video component of the exhibition, projected as a single channel onto a large wall. To a Chilean viewer, the scene might resemble Chile, but is actually Long Beach, California: “California looks like the future of Chile,” as Lehyt told me. One scene depicts a couple having a lovers’ quarrel. Their confrontation evokes all the conflicts of intimacy, opening an emotional vein in an exhibition otherwise characterized by its sense of clinical detachment toward the folklore and local culture it references. Indeed, Chile’s reality is infused with similarly contrasting extremes: the volte-face from a pre-Columbian agrarian landscape into an industrial economy fueled by copper and global tourism; the repressive policies of a seventeen-year dictatorship whose economic policies have nevertheless been touted as progressive and enlightened. The exhibition’s conflicting, antithetical realities immersed the visitor in three environments that were all the more remarkable because they were so apt in their explorations of the tropes and stereotypes of space.

Cecilia Brunson