Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Slingshot, 1975. Performance view, Idea Warehouse, New York, 1975. Sylvia Palacios Whitman.

Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Slingshot, 1975. Performance view, Idea Warehouse, New York, 1975. Sylvia Palacios Whitman.

Sylvia Palacios Whitman

Born and raised in Chile, Sylvia Palacios Whitman developed her work in New York beginning in the early 1970s. This exhibition, “Alrededor del borde/Around the Edge,” marked its first presentation in her home country. Curator Jennifer McColl Crozier brought together sketches, objects, performance documentation, and press clippings that made it possible for visitors to enter the universe constructed by the artist.

Although she briefly studied visual art at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Santiago, Palacios Whitman would take dance as her primary medium. She called the presentations of her work in New York “concerts,” and people struggled to define her pieces at the time: In 1979, Jennifer Dunning observed in the New York Times: “Critics have described her vignettes—in which men and women move slowly across the stage bearing enormous cloth and paper props—as everything from ‘minimal circus’ to ‘tiny machines of consciousness.’ Others hedge their bets by categorizing her, in up-to-date critical terminology, as a ‘performance artist.’ Perhaps, most simply, Miss Whitman is a weaver of dreams.” The inclusion of such texts in the exhibition provided useful context, illuminating the vigor of contemporaneous debates about different types of contemporary works and their blurred boundaries. The exhibition’s title was borrowed from that of a concert Palacios Whitman held at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre in New York in 1978. A white bed placed upright, with a hollow in the shape of a human silhouette demarcated with blue neon lights, burst onto a dark stage thanks to a mechanism that allowed it to move; the concavity was occupied by a man dressed in white. In the exhibition, we encountered a reproduction of this moving object in a dark room. Although without a body, the contraption managed to re-create the ephemeral atmosphere of the original performances.

In another room, also dark, the audiovisual records of four other concerts were exhibited. In all of them one could notice the deliberate interaction between performers and camera. The second floor of the exhibition displayed sketches, posters, photographs of actions, and the objects used within them. These items were more than just supplementary materials; since the work is not only the moment of the performance but also its planning and the material traces it leaves behind, they are all fundamental to it. The sketches functioned as visual anchors, reminding us of Palacios Whitman’s roots in drawing and painting and of her time as a fine-art student in Santiago. The sketches that project the action illustrate the planning and structure that allow the objects to be reactivated.

Alrededor del borde/Around the Edge” succeeded in reconstructing works whose essence lies in action. The difficulty of presenting them in a traditional exhibition format perhaps also contributed to the scant influence of Palacios Whitman on the Chilean scene. Only now are local art historians and curators beginning to redress this lack of recognition, as they are also doing with other Chilean-born artists, such as Francisco Copello, Juan Downey, Alfredo Jaar, and Cecilia Vicuña, who have until lately been consigned to a sort of art-historical limbo here. Although Palacios Whitman’s public artistic activity came to an end around 1985, in recent years she has begun to revive some of her old pieces—as she did here in Santiago, where she herself performed in two of a dozen-odd restagings that took place during the run of the show.

Translated from Spanish by Michele Faguet.