CHANTAL FABRES: rasion d’être
Interview by Lara Pan
LARA PAN: Chantal, how did you start to collect? Why photography?
CHANTAL FABRES: I did not think that I would start ‘collecting’ photography in the early 90’s, when I was a graduate student in New York. I fell in love with the medium and naturally became curious. I would go to photography exhibitions at the ICP, the MoMA, I would visit galleries in Soho and Chelsea. I also started going to the Photography Show, Aipad, which was quite a different scene back then. Photography was a medium I could afford on a student budget; Photography did not command the prices it does today, and one could buy prints by artists like Berenice Abott and Arnold Newman for instance. Being in New York I was naturally drawn towards classic American photography of the twentieth century. Perhaps, I was responding to what the dealers were showing and museums were exhibiting. I would also buy lots of vernacular photography. Some I still have, and they are amongst my most precious. I would find them in flea markets or at Aipad where some dealers would sell them from albums they had bought or found.
Honestly, I did not have a very extensive culture of photography or its history then and I was simply enjoying the process. I did not have a long-term view either; it is a journey that grew over time and evolved according to many factors.
LARA: You were born in Chile, tell me about your strongest memory from your time there.
CHANTAL: I was born in Chile from an Italian mother and a Chilean father. I don’t have many memories because I left Chile with my mother when I was 6 years old. My mother was a painter and was very involved with the art scene in Chile in the 60’s before the coup in ‘73. I have travelled back to Chile regularly over the years to see my family who are still living there.
LARA: What was the art community like back then?
CHANTAL: The generation of artists in Chile in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s was interested in Action Painting and Pop Art. Artists and academics would travel to Europe and the USA. Prominent intellectuals and international artists would visit Chile. Artists like Pollock, De Kooning, Rauschenberg, were very influential then, as were Tápies and other Spanish artists. Of course, Dada and Surreal- ism were taught as part of the art curriculum as were the Impressionists. Despite the enormous geographical distance, there were vibrant cultural relations. However, one can’t talk about there being a photography scene at that time. In fact, photography was not a subject that was taught in art school. Artists studied Fine Arts and photography was mostly a medium of personal expression. Antonio Quintana (1904-1972) for example, was a self-taught photographer who was interested in drawing a portrait of his country through his camera. That project culminated in a very important exhibition ‘El rostro de Chile’ [ the face of Chile] in 1960. Then, of course, you have Sergio Larraín (1931-2012) who joined Magnum in 1959, and who is one of the most recognized Chilean photographers today. The question around photography became very important when it became installed at the center of debates within the avant-garde activities in Chile in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s under the military regime of Augusto Pinochet.
LARA: I know there is a particular interest about Latin American conceptual photography today es- pecially in the one from Chile.
CHANTAL: I don’t think the term Latin American Conceptual Photography is accurate in the Chilean context because, as we have discussed before, there was no Chilean photography scene then. Instead, the correct way to consider this question is to understand how the photographic medium became an integral element in the visual arts in Chile in the late 70’s. This is what makes it exciting and very interesting.
In the art scene following the military coup, the ideological and the political were severely controlled and censured by a totalitarian regime and what was prohibited by the official discourse was articulated through subtle representation.
In this context, some artists appropriated and transformed international art movements - such as the conceptual art from the 1960’s- to discuss the Chilean context. Although in its early stages conceptual art in Chile challenged official art institutions and the established ‘bourgeois art,’ as did artists from many countries after the mid-1960s, it soon evolved according to a local intellectual process that radically differentiated it from the universally accepted definition of conceptual art. Conceptual art in Chile became inextricably bound to life and the art actions represented “life that had to be corrected.” The Escena de Avanzada (1978-1989) is the most recognized artistic movement formed during the Pinochet Dictatorship. It is a term coined by art theorist Nelly Richard in 1978 and translated as the ‘Chilean neo-avant-garde’. The Avanzada rejected the museum as a cultural institution they associated with the traditionalism and authoritarianism of the predominant order. “The enemy could not be Pinochet, because the dictator was untouchable. Consequently, they associated traditional arts, such as painting, as the symbolic enemy” and created a new avant-garde aesthetic to contest the regime. The Avanzada’s discourse is distinguished by its conceptual transgression, its break with formal language and the exploration of new formats and genres. It allowed artists to work in a crisis of representation and within the impossibility of free expression. Through the use of performance, urban intervention, photography, film, video etc., they embraced the idea of the cut, the fragment, and discontinuity which emphasise the violent rupture of codes with which the dictatorship had destabilised Chilean society.
Around 1977, the question of photography became a source of debates within the avant-garde. Debates around those years tended to privilege the documentary objectivity of photography above the imaginary of painting, which were deemed too evocative. Certain aspects of this polemic suggest- ed that incorporating visual technologies of mass reproduction into art condemned the ‘cultic’ value painting derived from its contemplative aura. It also suggested that the subjectivism of painting, accused of belonging ‘to the realm of self-absorption, self-expression, selfishness’ made it seem complicit with the ‘act of pretending’ certain things had not happened. By contrast, the camera could denounce as a visual instrument and was unrivalled for showing man in catastrophe. The works with the greatest reflexive density were those that led photographic documentation and pictorial representation to alternate and collate their critical-visual language in the image itself. It is only with the Avanzada that photography passed from technical resource to theoretical figure. Several artists from that period are recognized for the significance of their work and the importance of photography in it such as Eugenio Dittborn, Carlos Leppe, Carlos Altamirano, Alfredo Jaar, Raul Zurita, Mario Fonseca, Elias Adasme. Lotty Rosenfeld, to name but a few.
To read the full article, click here.