Buenos Aires

Yeguas del Apocalipsis (Mares of the Apocalypse), Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), 1989, ink-jet print, 53 1⁄8 × 47 1⁄4".

Yeguas del Apocalipsis (Mares of the Apocalypse), Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), 1989, ink-jet print, 53 1⁄8 × 47 1⁄4".

Yeguas del Apocalipsis

Fundación PROA

As night fell in the courtyard garden behind Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires last October, Francisco Casas Silva and Julio Urbina Rey dug a shallow hole in a small section of the lawn. Standing inside its cavity, they tenderly kissed and caressed. Silva disrobed, lowering to his knees. He sucked Urbina’s cock. Then he got down on all fours, positioning himself to receive anal sex. Someone turned off the lights in protest. But Silva, as if anticipating this reaction, turned on a flashlight, focusing illumination on their bodies. Queer intimacy had to be witnessed.

This performance inaugurated the first solo exhibition in Argentina of Yeguas del Apocalipsis (Mares of the Apocalypse), the Chilean duo comprising Silva and Pedro Lemebel (1952–2015). Formed in 1987, intervening in public spaces throughout Chile from 1988 to 1993, and appearing internationally in 1997, the Mares exploded onto the Chilean art scene “without any biography or cover letter,” as the exhibition’s curator, Victor López Zumelzu, writes, “other than the body.” With independent practices—Lemebel was a novelist and poet; Silva is a poet and visual artist—they collaborated to fully embody their activism.

Their dissident, othered bodies would not be invisible and could not be ignored. The Mares confrontationally inserted themselves into discourses inhospitable to queerness and establishment situations—prestigious state or literary events, for instance—where they were unwelcome. The context was the final years of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973–90) and Chile’s transition to democracy—during which a “free society” was brought about by “free markets,” as the US economist Milton Friedman would describe the “miracle of Chile”—and the AIDS crisis, which was endemic among the indigenous Mapuche.

The presentation at Proa was succinct yet indelibly powerful. Photographs showed the pair’s macabre humor even when they engaged in cultural critique: Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), 1989, for example, is a black-and-white tableau vivant of Frida Kahlo’s 1939 double self-portrait, with Lemebel and Silva connected by a blood-transfusion probe. But their performances were intensely sobering. The installation Homenaje a Sebastián Acevedo (Homage to Sebastian Acevedo), 1991, whose title refers to a mine worker who self-immolated to protest the disappearance of children during Pinochet’s regime, consists of a square of lime powder on the floor, an X of coal on top (both substances are natural resources in Chile), and five monitors lining the back edge, displaying documentation from the original performance: The Mares, nude and smothered in lime, crawl together, vaguely forming the outline of Chile’s border as they recite their national identification numbers and the names of Chilean cities over loudspeakers, persevering even as the coal is set aflame.

La conquista de América (The Conquest of America), 1989, included a map of South America placed on the floor; within the lines of its borders were shards of Coca-Cola bottles. Four black-and-white photos documenting a related performance hung on adjacent walls: At the Chilean Commission on Human Rights in Santiago on October 12, 1989—El Día de la Raza (the Day of the Race, as it is referred to in some Latin American countries, or Indigenous People’s Day in the United States)—they had used a similar map as a dance floor for la cueca, which Pinochet had declared the national dance in 1979, even though it was introduced by Spanish colonizers and is considered traditional in many Latin American countries. They wore nothing other than trousers and Walkmans taped to their chests; their bare feet bled onto the map below. Only they could hear the music. Dancing simultaneously, each nonetheless danced alone, referencing la cueca sola, a variation performed only by a woman, symbolizing the mothers of the disappeared, in the otherwise (heterosexually) partnered dance.

The exhibition took on an unexpected timely meaning during its run, when peaceful protests against wealth inequality, sparked by a metro-fare increase, morphed into a massive general strike this past October. Government-authorized carabineros (military police) responded by beating, shooting, and raping citizens. The reaction was reminiscent of the Pinochet era, but this time it had been ordered by an elected leader, President Sebastián Piñera. Thirty years after the Yeguas’ performance on El Día de la Raza, the repercussions of the neoliberal conquest of Chile were being laid bare. To borrow the words Lemebel used in another context, Piñera’s crimes were wiping “the hypocritical smirk off the face of the victorious Chile of the miracle.”