Some people just look like artists. You register their black attire, flowing grey hair and expression that states, "You and I are not of the same creative ilk," and it is immediately apparent. Kaarina Kaikkonen is simply one of these people. She is also the Finnish brains and creativity behind two exclusive exhibitions in Santiago Huellas y Diálogos or, for those of us to whom Spanish remains a fickle and wiley mistress, Traces and Dialogues.
Dialogues (photo by Evan Lang)
Dialogues, the first of the installations which make up the project, is situated within the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Upon arriving at the museum, extreme diligence is required in order to locate this unimpressive structure, which is small in scale and devoid of interesting details.
That was a lie: IT IS MASSIVE.
Walking into Central Hall is like walking into the the rib cage of a whale. A whale that had just swallowed a boat-load of laundry. The Bellas Artes already magnificent exhibition space has been transformed, adorned with over 2000 shirts and blouses hanging from clothing lines, cascading 12 metres from the edges of the upper walls. The shapes create an intriguing visual experience, with the hidden steel lines that support the structure seeming to form the bones of a great marine beast, a skeleton around a huge, light-filled, belly of colour.
Just to be clear, as far as I know, there is absolutely no intentional connection between this artistic piece and the whale species as its subject matter. This is possibly, therefore, an unhelpful analogy and not one Kaikkonen would appreciate. Nevertheless, she did say to me that her work illicits a very different response in each person, so, until you go and make up your own mind, we shall let Moby Dick have his day.
Stairs Traces (photo by Evan Lang)
Traces is the second component of the overall project and a whole different kettle of fish, as they say (or as I say, if only to continue with the somewhat inappropriate marine imagery). Located at the entrance to The Museum of Memory and Human Rights, this installation operates in stark contrast to the lightness and playfulness of the previous. To put it bluntly, if you were having a party, you would not invite Traces (Traces would be the one listening to Creed, smoking a joint and sobbing quietly into an Old Fashioned).
The somber installation takes the form of more than 850 men's jackets falling gently over the Chacabuco Staircase of the Museum's grand esplanade, flowing from lighter shades of fabric at the top to darker and older weaves at the bottom. Every jacket used is worn and lived in, carefully connected to next, and each facing its back to the audience.
Close-up Traces (photo by Evan Lang)
The site of the museum, itself built in commemoration of the Pinochet dictatorship, lends significant weight to a piece that already successfully captures the lingering and haunting presence that absence can have. And, while my sense of sadness was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that, after arriving late, I had missed the free cheese, the exhibit seemed to bear down upon the onlookers standing in the courtyard below, drawing us into silent contemplation.
Even for those who know little of Chile's recent history and the military regime, the sense of temporality and fragility evoked by the piece has the potential to resonate with one's own history and own memories.
The Artist (photo by Evan Lang)
For some, her work will inspire awe, wonder and reflection. Others will shake their heads and wonder how publicly airing dirty laundry came to be considered artistic expression. Wherever you land on the whole business, one has to admire the logistics of the entire operation. Not least the poor sods responsible with harvesting the many hundreds of used clothes required. Trailing around Baquedano with a bin-liner of old blouses at rush hour? Rather them than me, son.
Having worked all over the world, this is the first time that Kaikkonen's art is being exhibited in South America. Invited to Santiago as part of a collaboration between the National Museum of Fine Arts and The Museum of Memory and Human Rights, she initially came to Chile over a year ago to begin the process of designing the two bespoke pieces.
Dialogues runs until Sunday, May 26, 2013 at the Museo Nacional de las Bellas Artes, Parque Forestal, Casilla 3209. Open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 6:50pm.
Traces is live until Sunday, June 30th, 2013 at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, opposite Line 5 Metro stop Quinta Normal. Open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 6pm.