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Interview: Carlos Zuniga

January 4, 2011

An exhibition of Carlos Zuniga’s work, entitled Imperial Poem, is currently on show at Edel Assanti. Here the Chilean artist talks to Celia White about what lies behind his striking images of the people and landscape of the Falklands.


Can you describe the work you are showing at Edel Assanti?

The work on show at Edel Assanti is photography on a phone book. The images are landscapes and portraits, both from the Falkland Islands, and the phone books are from Argentina. The images are made using Chinese ink to delete names and addresses from the phone book. The result is a monochrome pattern that, from a certain distance, and also by optical effect, gives form to the images of the Falklands.

For me, showing this work makes me responsible for the images and their content. The system I have developed allows me to get in touch with society in order to communicate matters that interest me.

How does it compare to your other work?

I believe that the will to ‘see light’ is the essence of all of my productions. Nowadays, making contemporary art is pretty easy under the idea that nobody really understands it and that it is the art critic who intervenes between the art work and the viewer. The seeming freedom that this kind of art offers has forced me into a never-ending search for meaning in my work. I also believe that it is by means of the contact with people or places (outside my studio) that I can practice, reflect and modify my convictions.

How did you arrive at this technique? I’m particularly interested in the way that you erase text in order to create an image.

An intense form of mechanical production gave birth to this idea. My video The Origin of Species (2006) was inspired in the Ludovico technique used in the film A Clockwork Orange, which is based on the 1962 novella by Anthony Burgess. The Origin of Species showed me striking out the whole text of Charles Darwin’s book of that title. While I was doing this exercise I couldn’t stop thinking about how to depict my ideas in a figurative way. At that time, I was just completing my undergraduate studies in painting and the subject of figurative representation has always been of great interest to me. However, my drawing skills were lousy…After around eight years of drawing classes I felt frustrated. The idea of ‘making strokes’ was embedded in me from the observations I made during my 10 years of working as a designer in an editorial business. Finally, that painful affection resulting from the frustration caused by my drawing finds its impulsive escape in a drawing (or a scribble) that I made over Darwin’s book. So, that is the origin of my technique. After that, I did lots of tryouts until the finalised technique emerged; my first figurative art work was Next (2007). Today, I am fully aware of my evolution and I keep on studying my drawing with close attention.

There seems to be a strong psychological element to the way you work – you’ve described these pieces as creating a ‘secondary awareness’. Is this intended, or by chance?

It is completely intentional.

Do you use the landscape in your work because of its beauty, or because you see it as a political symbol of the war in the Falklands?

The use of landscapes in this work was conceived before my visit to the islands. The objective was to show beautiful landscapes, to capture the sight of the observer. After that, if the viewer is still interested, he or she will read the phone book in Spanish. Then he or she could come to the understanding that the images are representations from the Falkland Islands on pages from Argentinian phone books.
When I travelled to the Falklands I flew over them completely, and the airplane landed in three different parts very distant from each other. For that reason, I was able to have a general idea of the size of the territory and the distance between the battlefields. After that, I rented a car service for tourists and traveled in a Land Rover around the island. I wasn’t expecting anything but it turned out that I was riding through areas that many English soldiers walked by foot: San Carlos Wharf to the cemetery and other strategic points. The driver of the car was sympathetic to my interests and stopped every time I asked him to take pictures of the place. He was always watching me to make sure I didn’t step off the road because of the mines that are still underground. Despite the warnings, on the last day I decided to come back there on foot. I knew how dangerous it was but I was willing to take the risk. I felt free for the first time. I could face this project as a part of my life, as part of my convictions. Consequently, I couldn’t avoid making the landscapes into symbols of the war, like Mount Tumbledown or the San Carlos Wharf. If you look through the images of the war you will find many rocky landscapes, like Stone Runs, where soldiers from both countries looked for shelter and also died.

You spent time in the Falklands meeting people who experienced the war there. How did the history of that conflict emerge through the people you met? What are their reactions now?

My understanding is that people are not interested in this war. This can be seen simply by observing the distance between the Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust and the port of embarkation. It’s at least an hour’s walk one way and another hour to go back, and if you are old, as is common on the cruise ships that stop at the islands, it is impossible to get there. Nonetheless, there are more souvenir shops than anything else. I found that the school library had only one book on philosophy and that there were least five bars in the port of Stanley. With this background, I think the natural reaction to the war will come from the young people…at least I hope so.

Carlos Zuniga / Imperial Poem is at Edel Assanti until 11th January.

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