Michelle Letelier (catalogue essay for Goldrausch program, Berlin 2010)

Behind every creative gesture there is a particular life that help to determine the form that gesture will take as well as the manner in which it is articulated. Naturally, there are those lives that are more interesting than others in the way they connect to concerns considered to be universal, which is just another way of saying that some people’s lives are more relevant to other people’s lives. But what is shared is not a series of abstract qualities represented through self-indulgent introspection (a hackneyed assumption about what it means to make art) but the political dimension that is revealed through particular biographical anecdotes experienced by specific individuals.

Michelle Letelier’s trajectory as a visual artist begins with the Atacama Desert, a 1000km narrow strip of land that occupies a significant portion of her native Chile. It is the driest desert in the world – an inhospitable terrain that symbolically isolates an already geographically distant country from the rest of the world while connecting it to a global economy through the exploitation of the rich mineral deposits that lie just beneath its hard, flat surface. In the 19th and early 20th century, its principle export was sodium nitrate (used in fertilizer and gunpowder) until World War I prompted Germany to invent a synthetic version of it bringing an abrupt halt to a thriving national industry and quickly transforming once prosperous mining communities into ghost towns whose deteriorating facades today intensify an already melancholic landscape.

This poetic image of the desert was a significant reference for a previous generation of Chilean artists, known as the avanzada[1], and more recently figures in the writings of Roberto Bolaño – although his desert is situated in Mexico, the country where he lived in exile for many years. For Letelier, the desert is the place where she spent her adolescence, growing up in Chuquicamata, home to the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. (With the demise of sodium nitrate, copper replaced it as the country’s most lucrative natural resource; the nationalization of this industry by Salvador Allende directly precipitated the coup against him.) In previous works – photographs, videos, and installations – she began documenting the gradual erasure of the ‘Chuqui’ mining camp, as it was fondly called, forced to close due to environmental contamination and rising fuel costs associated with the transport of waste rock to an off-site location. The decision to relocate residents to the nearby town of Calama was accompanied by a practical – if somewhat macabre – solution of disposing the waste material from the mine onto the town itself, gradually burying it under layers of rock, with the exception of the plaza, school, and church, marked for historical preservation.

In Desarme, 2004-2007 Letelier walks through and around the near-empty “John Bradford Houses” that comprise her former neighborhood. Images of discarded and abandoned objects in now uninhabited interiors are juxtaposed with fragments of texts taken from inventories, certificates, and other documents found amidst the rubble. Carefully arranged on the floor below the video projection is an assortment of objects – like a doll, a floppy disk, a telephone book, etc. – all metonyms for a childhood spent in a small place on the map made insignificant by the crushing weight of a landscape altered and deformed by history and economic development. Similarly, in 8 (Eight), 2002 – a performance registered on video – Letelier ventured into her former bedroom in House #47, where she used coal picked up off the floor, to make drawings on the wall registering her presence during the eight years she spent in that room. Other works from this period depict images of the surrounding desert and its austere beauty as it submits to exploitation and in turn subsumes the traces of that process.

In 2007 Letelier relocated to Germany, a country whose historical ties to Chile derive not from the flight of war criminals to the Southern Cone following World War II as is typically commented, but the active recruitment in the mid 19th century of German colonizers – desired for their presumably superior work ethic – to settle in the country’s southern provinces. Consistent with her long-term interest in “the social changes connected to the dismantling of a landscape,” her most recent work – drawings and paintings in coal and graphite – departs (in a manner less documentary than before) from an interest in the coal mining industry, whose slow decline is emblematic of an embattled and seemingly never-ending process of German reunification. In Machine Studies, 2009-2010 a series of massive mining machines appear against an empty landscape, like dinosaurs recalling a former era, while her painting series Des Hecho, 2009, utilizes aerial photography – a medium associated with military operations, surveillance, and real estate development – to represent the topography of the environmental devastation that, in a global economy, is perpetually displaced onto the periphery.

In Western Europe, Berlin is the city in which the East-West divide is still clearly visible – from its massive, bleak housing blocks situated in the eastern periphery to the thousands of visual artists, musicians, and writers who have flocked here during the last decade, seeking an affordable lifestyle and cosmopolitan anonymity increasingly scarce within Western capitals. If there’s something that can be characterized as the particular smell of this historical limbo, it’s that of the burning coal still used to heat a large number of pre-war buildings in the neighborhoods of the former East as well as the old western ghettoes. Its absence inevitably signals gentrification – that curious process of destroying exactly what it is we seek, which is another form of colonization.

[1] A term coined by French born, Chilean critic and art historian Nelly Richard to refer to a seminal group of conceptual artists and writers active in the late 70s/early 80s including Carlos Leppe, Eugenio Dittborn, Lotty Rosenfeld, Diamela Eltit, and Raul Zurita among others. For further reading see: Margins and Institutions: Art in Chile Since 1973, Melbourne: Art & Text, 1986.

Notes on the New Town

Prior to writing this essay, I looked back at the email correspondence Cedric and I began in the summer of 2006 after a mutual friend in Berlin suggested we meet, as I had recently begun directing an artist-run-center in Vancouver where Cedric attended art school before relocating to Malmö to pursue graduate studies. A meeting was organized during one of Cedric’s trips back home to visit family, and an exhibition proposal quickly followed, which I enthusiastically accepted because Cedric seemed to be deviating from the tenets of photoconceptualism still firmly entrenched in Vancouver. This move away from a localist practice functioned well in relation to my curatorial interests, one of which was to address the insularity and self-referentiality of that scene by opening it up to divergent practices, histories, and points of views articulated by artists from outside of it but especially by those within who had grown weary of its conventions.

It was inevitable, then, that his original plan to exhibit a series of documentary style photographs of architectural subjects along with several self-portraits and a double channel video of a trip on the Berlin s-bahn ring gradually, and rather sneakily (with Cedric repeatedly insisting that he was only slightly altering his original proposal) morphed into a massive architectural construction collaboratively produced with the artist’s brother Nathan (also a photographer) and even their father – whose engineering expertise probably kept those first structures from falling down and severely injuring some poor unsuspecting visitor. Titled “For Fools and Traitors-Nothing,” (a name I secretly relished, given my recent resignation and imminent departure from the gallery) the exhibition loosely referenced the compound built by Brother XII, an early 20th century cult leader on Vancouver Island who mysteriously disappeared with the small fortune he had amassed from his faithful and naïve followers. Comprising the exhibition was a small cabin to be lived in, a podium to be preached from, a set of bleachers from which to survey these activities, and a walkway providing access to the gallery’s administrative office in what could have been interpreted as another opportunity for the invasion of privacy or just a wry attempt to make transparent the banal bureaucratic machinery of a small, publicly funded art space. (Or both) Additionally, small microphones were set up around the exhibit allowing spectators to eavesdrop on the conversations of others in a direct reference to the paranoia that afflicted Brother XII in his final years on the settlement and that manifested itself in the architectural landscape he constructed and obsessively managed.

Despite the radical shift of medium – from the immediacy of photography with its demands for both technical expertise and conceptual precision to the labor intensity of architectural structures that aspired to be functional but were constructed in a slow and precarious process of learning how to master structural (not just conceptual) integrity – the issues that concerned Cedric and provided the impetus for his work never really changed. The shift had began in a rather arbitrary manner: Feeling isolated and conceptually blocked in his studio in Malmö, he had constructed a platform with which to raise his work space to the same level as the impossibly high windows so that he could actually see outside. He proceeded to build new structures (all functional) on a weekly basis in what became a habitual and intuitive activity that provided a sense of relief from intellectual overexertion but began to take on a life of its own. While previous work addressed the ideological nature of architecture through images like the Palast der Republik shortly before it was demolished or construction sites for the American and Canadian embassies in Berlin – shot in a passive and contemplative manner – with this new way of working the artist delved more actively into the very materiality of what he had been photographing in a gesture that recuperated the value of manual labor and craft for its meditative qualities and subtle political implications. These architectural experiments were then registered with photographs that, although meant to have a purely documentary function (rather than becoming the work itself, as in the manner of Thomas Demand), consistently re-framed this practice within a photographic sensibility.

In these early works, as well as in subsequent projects, building materials were mostly salvaged from demolition and/or building sites, and in Vancouver this anecdote takes on a special significance: With its frenzied real estate market, it is a city that perpetually lives beneath construction cranes and the ubiquitous green-glass high-rise condominiums in the city center that have displaced many businesses and companies to the suburbs in a curious reversal of post WWII North American suburbanization that is just as destructive to the social fabric. Like most West Coast cities (with the notable exception of San Francisco) its architectural heritage is limited and thus highly contested: History is present in pockets of Victorian wooden houses scattered around the city – originally homes for the working class, today lucrative investments – and the industrial buildings and old department stores of the Downtown Eastside, the streets of which are home to Canada’s largest indigent community. Antique lumber, form wood, glass panels, and other discarded elements are the raw material with which the artist has constructed fictional scenarios that draw upon those vernacular elements and local anecdotes suppressed by the bland, monolithic structures that have crowded the skyline in a vain attempt to compete with the natural splendor of what is a typically Pacific Northwest landscape.

If real estate speculation is almost inevitable in a city that is too young to defend its architectural identity (already fragile given its geographical remoteness), in Berlin – a symbolic center of twentieth-century ideological struggle – it is the burden of history that weighs down so heavily spawning what seems like an incessant pattern of erasure and recuperation of the city’s contested urban and architectural topography. Its inevitability threatened since reunification, gentrification has moved at a sluggish and tentative pace in a sort of constant deferment of the prosperity that failed to stick after the initial economic boom of those early years quickly faded. Now settled permanently in Berlin, Cedric’s current construction materials have been rescued from the waste piles of new apartment building developments and from the renovation of pre-war buildings and factories. Take the bronze reflective glass that comprises the main element of the structure Cedric has built up for this exhibition. At the time of this writing I can only imagine what the construction might actually look like based on Cedric’s own speculations, given the spontaneous manner in which he builds – a product of both intuition and inexperience. Deriving from a series of air vents Cedric photographed in Prague – strangely stylized given their strictly utilitarian function – will be a sort of pavilion in the front gallery that empties out into a corridor through which the viewer must pass before accessing the remaining ground floor exhibition spaces.

Rescued from the dismantling of the former Bechstein piano factory at Moritzplatz – a company with a tumultuous history beginning with the partial destruction of a previous site during WWII followed by a dramatic decrease in sales due to the loss of its largely Jewish clientele and anti-German sentiment abroad aggravated by the Bechstein family’s very close affiliation to Hitler and the Nazi party – this bronze colored glass may also bring to mind the former Palast der Republik, whose glass façade reflected an obsession in German post-war architecture, on both sides of the wall, with transparency. According to architectural historian Deborah Ascher Barnstone, Palast architect Heinz Graffunder “[…] extolled the building’s lightness and accessibility and ‘the clear openness of the Palace for all citizens […] manifested through the optical transparency of the building mass […]’”[i] while in the Federal Republic glass was considered to be representative of a Western democratic model. Today the website of Flachglas Wernberg – a producer of the same kind of glass recycled by Cedric in this new work – makes a similar claim in its sales pitch: “The elemental characteristic of glass is transparency. Glass offers unlimited possibilities for the design of living areas and creates an atmosphere of clearness and proximity. Glass opens new spaces.”[ii]

In reality, the reflective metal coating of this particular glass produces the opposite effect – that of opacity – when exposed to sunlight, with the practical function of deflecting heat from the outside while reducing visible light transmission. Most archival photographs of the Palast seem to contradict Graffunder’s idealized image of his building by showing an opaque, copper colored block that seems rather heavy and impenetrable, architecturally speaking. If anything, the mirror effect of its façade, rather than exposing the interior of what was meant to be an important public social and cultural center built for citizens of the GDR, reflected the exterior landscape, including the Fernsehturm, constructed in 1964 as a symbol of East Germany that aggressively imposed itself onto a skyline clearly visible to the West. This effect – documented by Cedric in that old photograph mentioned at the start of this essay – is reproduced by the play of light set up within the current installation that alternately exposes and shrouds this interior passageway for viewers walking through it and for the camera that will eventually photograph it. It is the practical application of a formal (and potentially ideological) effect produced by a material that would have been discarded or transformed beyond recognition were it not for the tenacity of an artist intent upon sifting through the refuse of history.

[i] Deborah Ascher Barnstone, The Transparent State: Architecture and politics in postwar Germany, New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 233.
[ii] http://www.flachglas.de/eng/data/contentseite.php?menu_id=163; last accessed August 2, 2010