On a rainy winter evening last Thursday, an arty crowd traveled to the northern extreme of Buenos Aires, beyond the city’s airport and next to the first pavillion of Ciudad Universitaria, to attend a conference by internationally renowned artist Alfredo Jaar about his work in public spaces at Parque de la Memoria.
Jaar, an artist and architect originally from Chile, but living since the beginning of the ‘80s in New York, discussed extensively a group of public interventions, starting with his early and less known actions in Santiago de Chile when Pinochet was still in power. With works like Telecomunicación Belfast, Estudio sobre la felicidad (Study about Happiness), ¿Es usted Feliz? (Are you Happy?) and Andante Desesperato, mostly consisting in simple actions implying poetic gestures, he could approach topics like repression, fear and death.
The presentation consisted of images and very organized descriptions and narrations about his interventions in cities around the world like Montreal, Leipzig, New York, Helsinki, Skoghall (Sweden), Caracas and Tijuana-San Diego.
The use of light and fire to point out social asymmetry has provoked intense public discussion and awareness with Lights in the City (Montreal, 1999) and The Skoghall Konsthall (Skoghall, 2000). When he did One Million Finnish Passports in Helsinki, representing the policy that makes it almost impossible to incorporate immigrants in Finland, he had one million passports printed and displayed behind a high-security glass. Someone reacted by throwing his own Finnish passport over it. In the LED sign in New York’s Times Square, his letters in light read “This is not America” (A logo for America, New York, 1987) to point out that the American continent isn’t only the U.S.
Last year he worked again in Santiago de Chile, installing The Geometry of Conscience in the Chilean Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Museum). Visitors enter a hall that becomes completely dark and then for ninety seconds, the silhouettes of missing people start to lighten, but they are mixed with, surrounded by mirrors silhouettes of portraits of Chileans shot in the street. In this collective narrative, the dead and the living share the same space. Jaar wanted to reverse the typical logic of memorials in which the missing end up isolated and, ultimately, forgotten.
Conceptual clarity combined with a poetic and strong emotional involvement attempt to move and alert the public, with actions that can look simple, but that never simplify the complex realities they address. Jaar ended his presentation and left with the promise that in the next months he would create a piece for Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria that will probably expand to the rest of the city.