A small painting seemingly in negative shows the façade of two adjacent houses (Fig. 1). Four long narrow windows are at the center of the canvas, and a slice of sky on the top left corner appears to lighten the almost claustrophobic sensation created by the framing of the architecture with its simple and compact structure. A curtain from one of the windows moves violently towards the inside of the house, while the blinds next to it fade to black. It all happens in an unexpected chaotic moment: the strip that separates both homes vanishes amid the brick below the windows, and the building’s moldings are destroyed by what appears to be a pile of house furnishings, before turning, in the moment that follows the painting, into rubble, into ruins. The house, the houses, have become uninhabitable places, just like the image in negative that emanates from the painting and even tarnishes it entirely; though, this uniformity has been caused by a devastating humidity that arrives suddenly and destroys everything in its path. Yes, a homogeneous gray stain will appear in front of the squinting spectator, and yet the objects and time inhabiting the painting are anything but a fixation. The first of a large series of paintings made by Jorge Tacla since 2011, Hidden Identity 1 depicts the last great earthquake to occur in Chile.
A few years before, in 1977, Chilean poet Juan Luis Martinez published La nueva novela. Written and designed over the course of seven years, between 1968 and 1975, Martinez’s work, like Tacla’s series, begins with an image of an earthquake (Fig. 2). The image, selected from the extensive visual media archive and printed on the cover of the book-as-object, is a black-and-white photograph of the moment when three houses are destroyed during the 1964 earthquake in Alaska. The houses, which were designed and built to withstand the arctic climate through thermal insulation, are simple and functional, and the photojournalist caught the exact moment when the structures detach from the ground and tip to the side, before eventually collapsing on top of the neighboring houses. Things we don’t see either in the image appropriated by Martinez or in Jorge Tacla’s Hidden Identity 1 are devastated marketplaces, malls, city avenues, and freeways. Also missing are forests, beaches, fields, rivers, and the sea. No, we never see the sea. Instead we see a small set of two or three homes in a brutal and sudden collapse, “unhinging one of the basic symbols of life and human interaction: the house. It has become an unstable and dangerous place which no longer offers shelter or protection.” Three quotes from La Nueva Novela highlight and try to explain the cover image duplicated on page 120 of the book. The poet writes:
NOTA 1. LA DESAPARICIÓN DE UNA FAMILIA
Véase: EPÍGRAFE PARA UN LIBRO CONDENADO*
“La casa que construirás mañana; ya que está en el pasado y no existe.”
“El hombre nace en la casa, pero muere en el desierto.”
Proverbio del Gran Lama Errante
Oído por S.J. Perse en el desierto de Gobi
“Cuando la familia está hecha viene la dispersión;
cuando la casa está construida, llega la muerte.”
José Lezama Lima
*Véase: Adolf Hitler Vs. Tania Savich
(EL DESORDEN DE LOS SENTIDOS)
As shown in the above series of quotes, the unavoidable destruction of the house—or seeing the home as a threatening and vulnerable place—inevitably drives the reader towards a different register: one of senses and their movement. “The aftermath of chaos that underlies La Nueva Novela—as we’re told by Enrique Lihn and Pedro Lastra—is the same which hides reality under its apparent pretension of order.” In a similar way, Jorge Tacla, through his Hidden Identities series, has created an alternative way of telling a story that is different than the one used by the dichotomous spaces built by western rationality. This is why it’s not surprising that upon meeting with the artist a few days ago prior to the opening of his latest exhibition at the Tufts University Art Gallery in Boston, he answered my question about literature by saying that Juan Luis Martinez had a tremendous impact on his work.
However, this is not the first time that the focus is on both the destruction of the home and the ambiguity of the house as a place of shelter and happiness. One example taken from the history of art is Degas’s Interior (1868-1869), where the distorted perspective and irrational lighting threaten to destroy the constructs of order and gender in the household during the Second Empire. Created in a century that made people addicted to their houses, as Walter Benjamin said several times, the painting depicts a scene with two bodies: at first glance, a dominant male and a shrunken female. These two mysteriously interact in an indoor environment that, by the wallpaper and the bed, we know is a bedroom. The teenager’s face is surrounded by a visually inexplicable shadow, rendering her description impossible and negating the act of seduction as an unequivocal understanding of social construct. It is through this switching of visual references that, as Susan Sidlauskas argues, Degas proposes an alternative scenario: an interior that transforms the space as much as those who inhabit it. Jorge Tacla has thought about all of this while creating Hidden Identities, building a narrative on the psychological complexities that emanate from the relationships between mind and space in both the human subjects and the architecture within his paintings. In other words, the painter makes visible the development of the humankind from the opaque, blurring the dualities of victim and victimizer, aggressor and attacked, or any other possible binaries. In this essay, I analyze the Hidden Identities series, focusing on a few case studies in order to show the constant tension that calls for the incapacity of the mind’s transparency in relation to the trope of identity. In so doing, I also examine recurring concerns within Tacla’s work, such as the representation of memory, history, spatiality, painting, and human suffering.
Hidden Identities has been exhibited on four occasions so far, the first time being at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile between June and September 2014. The Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York was the second to display the series from May to July 2015, and next was the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) between October 2015 and February 2016. The paintings are currently being shown at the Tufts University Art Gallery in Boston from January to May 2016. In all, the psychological tension occurs many times in the private space; like in Degas’ painting, in Tacla’s case there is also a bed. However, the latter always shows this object in a destroyed form. In Hidden Identity 81 (2014), for example, we see a bed in blue and grey tones, reminiscent of a mid-nineteenth century cyanotype, through a pronounced foreshortening that at first glance appears to be the focal point of the painting (Fig. 3). There is a window or precipice to the right, but this abyss emits a light that reaches under the bed and highlights its edges. The light slowly dims and the painting’s corners fade to black. But, after a closer look, the viewer observes how the creases in the sheets are converted into something else: now, they are bodies. Two intertwined bodies leaning into each other rest their heads on the edge of the bed, near the window that has now turned into a canyon. They sleep in an embrace and dissolve into the bed, almost becoming part of it through sleep. And then, next to the remains of the bed, forming a triptych, Tacla has added two other paintings: a portrait and a river. Each painting is separated by a very small space. In the one at the center, entitled Hidden Identity 78 (2014), the portrait of Marcia Merino appears behind a violent horizontal sweep. Also known as La Flaca Alejandra, Merino was a militant of the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement of Chile) who after being tortured by the DINA (Chilean Secret Police) collaborated directly with Miguel Krassnoff during the Pinochet dictatorship. In Tacla’s painting, Merino is gazing at something not in the canvas: maybe at the torturer, the betrayed, or nothing at all. These are inscrutable and volatile eyes, or eyes that refuse to be seen. Meanwhile, the viewer is able to see a thin naked body in a claustrophobic interior space. We want to go into the canvas and find out more, but both the painting and the portrait seem to push us out, not letting us think in categories that could be all of the emotions at once. “I was the symbol of betrayal,” says La Flaca at various occasions throughout Carmen Castillo’s documentary about her. “I was too weak to endure the torture.”
In his book The Drowned and The Saved, Primo Levi elaborated on the “grey area” concept. Using his own life’s testimony as the only possible narrative, Levi wrote: “The only reason to live is to avoid the witness to die.” The chemist turned writer described the psychological processes that underlay the living conditions endured in the Nazi Lager, where a group of deportees would become complicit in their own destruction. Sharing Levi’s proposed inability of judgment, but including the context of local political history, Chilean writer Diamela Eltit identified a “chameleon-like” persona that attaches itself to places of power—first to the revolutionary left and then the DINA/CNI—culminating in the pardon given within the reconciliatory context of the Transition. “Within certain political entities there is a tendency, due to weakness or a desire for belonging and status, to shift in the direction of the more dominant ideological winds,” Eltit wrote in Emergencias. But even though it is also possible that the eagerness to participate is dismissed at first because of the desire to survive, what I think Tacla’s paintings are concerned with is related to what happens the moment before the unraveling: that chaotic time that happens too soon to be shown. It is, in other words, a puzzling instant that conceals itself while the painting occurs, as if the canvas were the only place for survival as it continues to defeat itself time and again. And it is during this struggle that a river appears in the last painting of the triptych. Like La Flaca’s stare, the river is also impenetrable. It is dark and violent, and what looks like a photographic panning over the river serves as an allegory of what it damages and what it contains. Many missing were thrown by the military into the waters of Chile.
The series features other beds, actually, many more. In Hidden Identity 17 (2011), the painter’s gaze finds itself in a brutally devastated room. The thick cracks in the wall at times turn into grey stains, reaching over the three-dimensional illusion and bringing the painting into pure abstraction. The evidential marks of disaster appear to be dripping, while the bed’s own fractured parts turn into creases. And these creases that were once cracks as well as paint continue the flow of the blanket towards the floor, turning everything to a confusing and realist scenario once again. We don’t know the exact cause nor the setting of the catastrophe, but we do know we are seeing it as it occurs and that the photographer—occasionally the artist himself— has captured the image from a high vantage point within the bedroom and with a wide angle, achieving a wide panoramic view of the scene. However, because of the long narrow window to the right of the painting, as well as the logistical details (the year and series number), we might think that this is an indoor view of one of 500,000 homes destroyed by the earthquake in Chile on February 27th, 2010.
Not even a month prior, on January 12th, an earthquake of 7.2 on the Richter scale with an epicenter in Port-Au-Prince left 316,000 casualties and 350,000 wounded, as well as rendered approximately a million and a half Haitian people homeless. Considering the current socioeconomic situation of this Caribbean country, the same one that only twenty years after being hit by the strongest earthquake in its history in 1770 began the first Latin American revolution that would result in its independence from France as well as in the abolition of slavery, the large quantity of casualties, wounded people and destroyed houses during the 2010 catastrophe were very significant, as were the images of bodies crushed and trapped by rickety construction that immediately traveled across the world. Many photographic lenses were unable to capture the moment these structures came down given the velocity of the destruction, and on more than one occasion Tacla has used some of these images to turn them into negatives.
At the Tufts exhibition, right after entering the gallery and seeing Hidden Identity 1, the spectator encounters a triptych about the earthquake in Haiti. The image on the left, entitled Hidden Identity 7 (2011), is a landscape divided into four parallel parts, including the sky, a narrow hill on a hazy horizon, and then the sea. The fourth part has rubble replacing the earth, taking up two-thirds of it all. Houses, streets, anything that may have been identified as furnishings or real estate has become rubble, losing all of their morphological recognition. It may be the case in this allegory of the present and its memory—where we see different kinds of construction, some more fragile than others—that there was never anything other than ruins. In any event, it is in the painting to the far right of the triptych, Hidden Identity 9, where the close-up of an unknown becomes anxiously permanent. There is nothing more than shapes made out of organic vertical and horizontal strokes; at first glance, there is nothing but geometric abstraction or flat painting. And yet, looking beyond that immediate impression, the viewer can identify some diagonals crossing through the canvas that keep the illusion of depth, and, by extension, the negative aesthetic (in the photographical sense) in Jorge Tacla’s work.
But Tacla’s aesthetics of the negative, as well as the simulated effect of pure abstraction and flat painting, first began in the late 1980s when the artist’s focus on the human body started to take the shape of landscapes and buildings. Since then it has become difficult, if not unlikely, for the viewer to recognize certain objects when he or she gets close to the paintings, and vice versa. The spectator’s body is now involved in the piece through its physical and participative proximity, rather than simply being an observer. This system, related to proximity and distance, is repeated in the choices made by Tacla considering the visual field of his paintings. And yet there are exceptions, and it is through those alterations that the artist produces a second reading revealing the differences between First and Third World relations. Thus, when in Hidden Identity 7 the viewer identifies two-thirds of the canvas with shapes that resemble mountains, sky, and the sea, below those shapes there is nothing but rubble, and otherness, making it impossible to recognize what it once was. Within this same perspective we then encounter Hidden Identity 4, an image alluding to Japan’s 2011 earthquake, except that this time the effect is used in an inverted manner. In the painting, a housing complex is brutally destroyed and yet we can still identify the windows, the front of the building, and the flat roof that because of the tectonic movement is bending diagonally forward with great force. As in the painting referring to Chile’s earthquake, where there was a section of sky in the corner of the canvas, in the painting of Japan we can also identify the differences between the form and background, as well as the names of the objects they were before turning into ruin. However, it is worth mentioning that these contrasting perspectives caused by Jorge Tacla’s distinct representational system are not trying in any way to measure pain, because to do so would imply another form of hierarchically categorizing human lives and suffering. This is about trying to reflect on a kind of suffering that has not been caused by human or divine rage (Susan Sontag once said that suffering caused by natural causes, either inadvertently or unexpected chance, is barely represented in Art History iconography), but instead by the contingency of structural differences—architectural as well as economical— that underlie the allocation and distribution of nations designed at the start of the Cold War.
But if we choose to set morphology aside, we could also say that even though the rubble has disguised what these objects once were through visual abstraction, they are still named. They are ruins and memory; the building of a present that only inhabits in and within time as it affects the past and pushes it forward. As Walter Benjamin famously noted, the past must be reinvented and refreshed in every present moment, resisting the “Angel of Progress” that looks triumphantly at the future while clearing, and forgetting, any obstacles it may encounter. Considering the ruins as the present, Tacla’s paintings oppose the modern Cartesian progressivist view of a house as being more than just its exterior, more present than past. “It’s about dissecting the architectural skeleton,” the artist explained, of showing that uninvited lapse of time that neither blinds nor reveals, in positive or negative, the presence of controlling systems within the buildings’ past, present, or future. In the moment that the photojournalistic images intervene with the oil paint and cold wax, Tacla accounts for the image’s morph into the darkness and then the blinding brightness through which the building’s skeleton is revealed. This process works in a magnificent manner in Hidden Identities, and it does so not necessarily as a metaphor for the human mind, but rather as an extension of it. The artist’s creative process is akin to its historical meaning. As Tacla explained in a recent interview:
I develop the image on oil over canvas primed with rabbit skin glue. While the fabric is still soaking I cover it with a thick layer of cold wax and pigment, almost concealing the image entirely. Then I start to cut the layers and reconnect the spaces, as a surgeon or psychopath would, until a very thin and vulnerable skin remains. The whole process happens very quickly because the surface needs to remain damp. I think of my process not unlike an autopsy, where layers need to be peeled and removed in order to access what’s inside.
It is within that “inside,” I thought, that interior part of the structure that is violently relieved of its materiality, where the spectator’s gaze is thrown off-balance by instability and agony. Thus, in pieces, or better broken into pieces, it is now the viewer who enters Jorge Tacla’s battlefield.
Last December I visited the artist’s studio on 39th Street and 6th Avenue with my sister, an architecture student. I remember her standing in front of a large scale painting with a blinding white stripe crossing vertically down the center of a devastated building. I remember her repeatedly asking the artist about the blueprints and the layout, noting the spatial importance in the painting. It was then that Tacla told us about his months in the desert. It happened in 1988. Seven years prior, he had moved to New York after attending the Fine Arts School at the Universidad de Chile from 1976 to 1979. During those years, Chile was living under dictatorship. In 1973, the presidential palace La Moneda was bombed during a Cold War operation orchestrated by Chilean military groups and American aids, eventually silencing the voices and bodies of an entire country. Since very early on in his career, Tacla painted those shrunken, distorted, and broken bodies, suspended within the trauma of self-censorship that became known as one of the most successful tactics of the regime. The New York art community, reacting to those paintings made in the 1980s that consisted of “furious anthropoids involved in cruel pantomimes of primitive human behavior,” rewarded the artist with a Guggenheim Scholarship. This eventually was what led Tacla to the Atacama Desert. “I would go there every day with a briefcase and sit on a rock. I never did anything,” the painter said in 1999.
I became aware of space and connected it with pictorial space by turning everything into a negative[…] I began to focus on the spaces that embody different social attitudes [such as] landmark buildings, which bothered me simply because they were landmarks: their powerful representation, their presence, how a building could imply respect. Behind these façades there is an internal biology. For example, after the 1985 earthquake in Chile I was able to see, through a tragedy, the weakness behind constructions that appear indestructible… It was then that I looked into buildings that project this image of protection, like the Pentagon, constructions that appear to protect a society but destroy it at the same time. I started to work on architecture from its most vulnerable point: edifices that appear to be hanging from a foundation that doubts their presence from the most sensitive spot that the representation of construction has.
As the quote above demonstrates, two main concerns began to develop in Tacla’s work after his months in the desert: the “inner biology behind the façade,” which translates also into the “architectural skeleton,” as well as the aesthetics of the negative. Both are related to spatiality, with the first alluding to the frailty of edifices in the modern states as occurs in Hidden Identities the moment we detect the concealed ghost that reveals itself through what the artist names “architectural skin.” We see then visual markers that mix with images conjured behind or in front of them, such as that white strip that dissected a building and attracted my sister’s attention, or the outline of the Chilean flag framing a painting of the palace of La Moneda in flames on September 11th, 1973 (Fig. 4.)
This last work, a large scale painting titled Hidden Identity 117 (2015), is based on one the most symbolic photographs Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann (documentarians from the German Democratic Republic) captured on the day of the coup from the windows and roof of the Hotel Carrera. Reproduced countless times throughout the world as an example of the occupied Chilean state, these images, not unlike Primo Levi’s literature regarding concentration camps during World War II or the photographs taken by Susan Meiselas during the Nicaraguan insurrection, show a story as seen through the eyes of the witness. More precisely, Heynowski’s and Scheumann’s images belong to the worldwide archive that preserves the collective memory of archetypal buildings destroyed by terrorist activities, of which perhaps the most famous, but not necessarily the most cruel, painful, sensationalist, or historically consequential, is the photograph taken by Richard Drew on the morning of 9/11 in lower Manhattan. But, as previously stated, there is no way of measuring or comparing pain; thus, we can only think of these images and related events as consequences and how they shape a present that only constitutes itself in a “state of memory.” And that is precisely what Jorge Tacla’s paintings achieve.
In the painting of La Moneda, the artist not only takes from the symbolic archive in order to intervene and pictorially convert it into the present time, but he also has it coexisting with the Chilean flag. This last symbol, established as the “country’s emblem” along with the coat of arms and the national anthem in the still prevailing-constitution signed in 1980 by Augusto Pinochet and the Junta, coincides in Tacla’s work with the ends of the canvas, making it difficult to differentiate between the object and its representation, like Jasper Johns did in the 1950s in his Flag series. In this way, Tacla takes the painting allegorically into the mundane, to the thing, alluding to the continuity of authoritarianism and its nationalistic patriarchal values that go beyond the dictatorship and the transition. The ghost of the regime, or its perverse continuation, was designed not only by supporters instead of oppressors, but also by a much more complex spectrum of subjectivities, or hidden identities, which is known as the successful introduction of the neoliberal model in Chile at the beginning of the 1980s by Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys. It is right there, in the overlay of images and in the matching of their borders, where the artist reveals the architectural skeleton during and after the coup d’état, turning the document, the proof that is Heynowski’s and Scheumann’s photographic journalism, into representation and object at the same time. Just as in Kiefer’s paintings, where the present’s frailty happens within vast landscapes of low horizons, alluding to the historical myth surrounding German nationalism through a mixture of traditional and organic objects, Tacla paints a claustrophobic weakness of the mind in the body and in space, making visible the gaps of the past in the contingency of the present. In this sense, it is interesting how Adorno’s thoughts from the 1960s are not as famous, such as when he reassessed his famous quote from 1951 after reading Paul Celan. If “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” as Adorno said a few years prior to his death, not doing so is to not recognize history and to therefore exterminate it, since the figure of the witness is the only route of possible representation. But Kiefer and Tacla are a different kind of witness compared to Primo Levi, Luz Arce, or Pedro Matta. Though neither Kiefer nor Tacla were ever prisoners of torture and extermination camps, nor were they forced into exile because of ethnic or political reasons, they share much in common with Celan. The painters are witnesses to societal consequential aftermath, subjects of a collective body that does not think of history from the side of progress, reconciliation, or the sentencing (whether it’s temporary or life imprisonment, or the death penalty), but rather from the clash of the contingency of the past through its history. The painters are, overall, witnesses that demonstrate how even after the ruins there is still a name to what once was, even though those names contradict themselves due to the fragility of the events time and again. It’s not by chance then that Hidden Identities was first exhibited at Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights.
As for the aesthetics behind his use of the negative, the second concern in Tacla’s work that came out of his months in the desert, art historian and critic Donald Kuspit detected a representational dialectic wherein the implicit allusion to infinity given by the desert contradicts and comes into conflict with the visual splendor of master architecture. “The desert is clearly architecture’s 'negative,' that is to say the 'original' absence of the social presence that fills the space through construction. This 'positive' filling is done with power and social authority,” Kuspit wrote once, noting that within the “negative vision of history” proposed by the artist, the spatial conventions present in both the desert and architecture exist in more of a “hallucination” over “proximity with its material premise.” Agreeing with the irony of Kuspit’s thoughts regarding “positivity” and the dogmatic reproduction emanating from landmark buildings, as well as with the allegory of the desert’s vastness which acts as the negative, the subjectivity in Tacla’s paintings regarding buildings destroyed in specific places and amid historical moments appears to be fighting with the mysterious and seductive that goes with the hallucinatory. Much like Degas’s Interior, the mysterious side is there, but the mystery does not have a larger or lesser meaning when compared to the preceding reference. Both the mystery and the materiality of the local in Jorge Tacla’s series can lead into more universal interpretations regarding the human mind’s way of perceiving and dealing with trauma and physical destruction. But these interpretations, indeed, are connected to each other by shared cultural, colonial, political, social, and ethnic histories. This is why, I think—and again this is a possible reading but certainly not the only or definite one—that Hidden Identities could be read in conjunction with the thoughts of Homi K. Bhabha, who warns about the trap of using only universal speech relating to masculinity. According to Bhabha:
“Masculinism” as a position of social authority is not simply about the power invested in the recognizable “person” of men. [In fact] it would be perfectly possible for woman to occupy the role of a representative man (Maculinism is instead) about the subsumption or sublation of social antagonism; it is about the repression of social holistic or universal discourse on the representation of the social that naturalizes cultural difference.
An illustrative example of the problem Bhabha is referring to, which connects to my own reading of Tacla’s work where the negative of the human brain’s binary psychology intervenes, is the critique Idelber Avelar makes of Death and the Maiden (1990), a play written by Ariel Dorfman that was later adapted into film in 1994 by Roman Polanski. In the play and film, the characters are turned into stereotypes and fetishes, which seem to personify the likely implausibility of the mind’s deepest subjectivities: Paulina, a former political prisoner who was tortured and raped during the Pinochet dictatorship, represents female hysteria, and Gerardo, Paulina’s husband, represents male rationality. On a dark stormy night, Paulina’s torturer ends up by chance at the couple’s beachside home. Recognizing her victimizer by means of his voice—one of the tactics of the DINA/CNI was to keep prisoners blindfolded—Paulina tries over and over to convince her husband she is telling the truth, that she has recognized in the visitor the man who tortured her during the dictatorship. Yet Gerardo, who in the play and film was part of a new governmental commission on the infringement of human rights, still chooses to believe the torturer instead of his wife’s account. “In other words,” Avelar tells us, “the Polanski/Dorfman film attempts to be feminist by featuring a couple composed of a hysteric and an idiot.” In turn, we have Dorfman’s own ambitions of universality: “The play I wrote twenty years ago about Chile’s torture and trauma has a painful, global relevance today.” The line that opens the film, “A country in South America, after the fall of the dictatorship,” makes us think, as Avelar argues, that the use of the prefixes “A” and “The” are nothing but contradictions on specific historical and geopolitical subjectivities. All of the above brings us back to the erasing of cultures, the suppression of particular stories, and their connections to others that Bhabha predicted in the early 1990s while referring to a universalist desire. Agreeing with the complications that inspire the global aim of some representations of suffering, (Bhabha, 1992; Avelar, 2001) and with a narrative voice that, as in Martinez’s La Nueva Novela, could also “appeal to a historical reader, considerate of time frames (that the poet) has disguised through tricks and effects of timelessness, not unlike an illusionist,” Tacla traces a geographical, political, historical, and catastrophic triangle between Chile, the United States, and the Middle East, making visible a likely account of shared stories where state acts of terrorism, civil wars, assassinations, and iconoclast periods intervene in the building of memory and in the contradictions of the human mind. Thus, if we observe the series as a whole, we notice that there are many images located within this geopolitical triangle. Examples of this are: the burning of La Moneda in Santiago, the destruction of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Romanic church which converted into a mosque in the fifteenth century and into a museum at the start of the twentieth century, and which has consistently captured the artist’s attention since 2006. What are these stories? How do their memories and construction of subjectivities are connected through time? But first of all, why does Tacla have this fixation on the trauma occurring in the collective body and the human mind’s contradictions within this specific geopolitical and cultural triangle?
Refuting the orthodox discourse of a pure minimalism in the U.S. during the 1960s, Anna C. Chave identified multiple minimalisms responding positively to the famous question asked by Foucault in the late 1970s, which was derived from Beckett in the 1960s: “What difference does it make who is speaking?” Taking as a case study the political identity behind the serial latex, fiberglass, and polyester resin sculptures of Eva Hesse, a German of Jewish descent who in 1939 immigrated to New York with her family at the age of four, and questioning therefore the strategic absence of the author practiced by canonical minimalist artists of the time, a great example of which being Carl André, Chave concluded her essay by saying: “The answer (to Foucault's question) was and is: it matters crucially.”
Descendant of Syrian grandparents on his father's side and Palestinian grandparents on his mother's side, Jorge Tacla was born in Santiago in 1958. The historic formation of intellectual circles, religious institutions, and mercantile centers created by communities of thousands of people who arrived to Latin America from the Middle East at the end of the nineteenth century during the Ottoman Empire on the one side; and the historic connection of the Mahjar with the political activism during, for example, the Syrian Revolution of 1925, the First and Second World War, and the current refugee crisis on the other side; connect a pivotal aspect of Jorge Tacla's political identity with “an international public sphere that links the Latin American Arabs with their Middle Eastern countries and the diaspora communities around the world.” It is not by chance that Tacla has focused on the Syrian civil war as well as the Gaza massacres time and time again. Beginning with the first one in 2011 and taken to the unexpected place of machining the destruction of life and culture after ISIS showed the world the video of the beheading of an American journalist in 2014, the second has a long story in contemporary history beginning with the formation of the Zionist movement in the nineteenth century. However, it was not until after the end of WWII, when England decided to separate Palestine into two states (the side that had 57% of the territory given to the Jewish people, and the rest to the Palestinian Arabs), that at different moments in recent history the Gaza Strip was systematically bombed and its people forced to migrate. First in 1948 after the formation of the State of Israel; then in 1967 during the Six-Day War when approximately 400,000 illegal Israeli settlements were installed in Palestinian territory; to what then turned into the Intifadas of 1987 and 2000. Most recently in 2014, after several disputes between Palestine and Israel in the twenty-first century, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) led an indiscriminatory attack against the population of Gaza with the objective to attack Hamas, yet ending with taking the lives of thousands of civilians as well as leaving numerous homeless.
In Hidden Identities both of the Middle Eastern conflicts appear so much that, considering the amount of Western press images where these massacres are displayed under terrorist-related headlines due to economic and imperialistic interests from the United States, it seems that the series is largely referring to a non-binary revision of said events, and, from there, the systems of power concealed within home, and by extension humanitarian, destructions that have occurred during the last few decades throughout the world. Indeed, going further away from the four exhibitions exclusively dedicated to the series, both the Syrian situation as well as that in Gaza gave way to two large-scale paintings of buildings turning into ruin that the artist showed at the Emergency Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennial. Set up in the wall at the front entrance of the Fondamenta Nuove Theatre, the intense white titanium of the paintings made the focal zenith light of the venue bounce off the canvases, tracing on the bodies of the spectators a mirage of silhouettes. By involving the viewer's body through light and lightness, creating a spectacle from the gaze alone, but at the same time turning the visitor into a participant of the paintings through their own shadows and through their collectivity, Tacla proposed a new way of seeing, criticizing western strategies that reproduce these catastrophes as solely terrorist, instilling fear and the generalization of the Arab world to justify the repercussions that occurred after 9/11. Tacla then, quite lucidly, built a narrative that distanced itself from the dominating relations that underlie the models of the victim and the victimizer.
But as part of the Mahjar diaspora, the artist does not nationalize his concern to particular massacres in the Arab world: the painting of the Hagia Sophia in Turkey is one example, and a small canvas where a woman cradles in her arms a recently deceased woman during the 2009 presidential elections in Iran is another (Fig. 5). This second case study serves as a starting point in order to think of the many possible relationships that occur in the geopolitics that frame the series, considering that the artist's political identity does not take his attention away from catastrophic events in Chile, where he lived until the age of twenty-three during the time of the Popular Unity and the dictatorship, and in the United States, where he has resided for thirty-five years since moving to New York in 1981. Being part of the Latino diaspora as well as the Mahjar one, Tacla has maintained close bonds with the stories, local artists, and immigrants in the place of multiple identity crossroads that is New York, which resulted in his participation in the famous exhibition The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s, co-organized in 1990 by three institutions. Obviously this is not about an identity related solely and entirely on the physical experience with geography, but about one that considers the experience from displacement, diasporas, as well as historical and cultural networks throughout the world. It is from there that, as Chave thought, it does matter who speaks.
Before continuing, it is worth mentioning that, at the same time, from each image or event other small stories emerge that cover different places across the world connected through time or theme, as in the paintings of the Chile, Haiti, and Japan earthquakes, or, in a different register, as in the paintings of the 1995 attack in Oklahoma and those large canvases representing a weapons factory in the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War. But there's more: to these paintings, the author seems to say, we could add many others that do not necessarily need to exist materially or historically, given that the future of the ruins or the expectation of them has more to do with the construction of subjectivities connected with memory and the present than with foreshadowing certain events. So it is not the magician who paints or the one who thinks about the Pentagon being destroyed before 9/11, nor is it the psychic taking the place of the artist in the Syria and Gaza paintings shown at the 2013 Venice Biennial. Those paintings and those thoughts, I believe, are not coincidental. Always paying attention to the mind's inconsistencies, or better said, to the "skeleton of architecture," for Tacla the contradictory ghost of the mind happens while comprehending a temporality that comes from inherent meanings of the creation of culture and power structures. It's worth mentioning that those contradictions appear in a series of drawings entitled Cuadernos that accompany the series, yet here form a more intimate reference. Installed in the four shows as a horizontal row, the drawings have their origin in a residency the artist did in Italy in 2013 at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. While there, at the same time that Tacla was in conversations with psychiatrist Gianni L. Faedda, art critic Christian Viveros-Fauné, and philosopher Francisco de Lara, he began writing random phrases and sketches violently on paper, taking away from language its representative capacity and the composition of the linguistic symbol, just as the foggy consistency generated by the mixing of the oil paint with the cold wax in his paintings represents another layer of the mind's contradictions. Noting the shadows, the last shadows of his time, the artist writes words that are then crossed out, repeated, extended, and contracted once and again. "Time terminates of the
per present," Tacla writes in a drawing; " I have to go home." on another one. And so, through the crossing out of words and the reference to the house, the drawings within the Cuadernos bring us back to Juan Luis Martinez’s La Nueva Novela
But going back to the painting of the woman with another woman in her arms in Iran, a country where homosexuals are murdered and women are imprisoned if they do not fulfill the dress code, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009, awakening a series of protests in Iran as well as the rest of the world. Amid these protests denouncing fraud in the elections, many women and racial, religious, and generic minorities were murdered. Many of whom, one might add, the state already considered to be second-class citizens. One of these women lies in the arms of another who looks at her with deep anguish in Tacla's Hidden Identity 62 (2014). How can that despair, that death, that horrific image of human suffering connect with other images of architecture or landmarks being destroyed in the recent history in the other side of the Atlantic? The painting of La Moneda in Chile and those of the Pentagon in the United States (whether it's those from before or after 9/11) will work to trace, together with the painting of the women in Iran, one of the many contradictions as well as historic and symbolic narratives that can be observed through the geopolitical triangle of Hidden Identities (Fig. 4 and 6). Giving way for other multiple possibilities that happen more widely in the subjectivities of our present due to trauma and the temporality of ruins, these paintings involve both the body as architecture and the quotation of famous art works in history related to the iconography of suffering. But before referring to the connections between these two tropes, it seems important to refer first to the international relations between these three geographies in Tacla’s series, beginning with the coup d'etat in 1973, a "painful [event] in Chilean history" which, as Donald Kuspit well noted, awoke the "terror and trauma of history" in Tacla's oeuvre.
In a recent edition of LASA Forum that was dedicated to the urgent issue of relations between the Middle East and Latin America in connection to the United States, a connection that Tacla has indeed been making since his months in the desert in the late 1980s and that manifests quite notably in Hidden Identities, an illuminated essay by Fernando Camach