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Hang ’em high presidential art tests Chile limits

A startling art exhibit depicting all of Chile’s past presidents strung up by nooses, on display in a national-palace annex, is testing Chileans’ ability to laugh at themselves.
/ Source: Reuters

A startling art exhibit depicting all of Chile’s past presidents strung up by nooses, on display in a national-palace annex, is testing Chileans’ ability to laugh at themselves.

“Let’s not be Parra-noid,” quipped Chilean President Michelle Bachelet when she inaugurated the installation by veteran bad-boy poet and visual artist Nicanor Parra, 91.

The exhibit is in an underground cultural center at Chile’s national-palace complex. Displaying gallows images of presidents so close to the seat of government might draw controversy anywhere, but it is especially daring in Chile where presidential authority is highly respected.

“We still have a huge difficulty in questioning authority. We are still an authoritarian culture,” said philosopher and ethicist Pablo Salvat of the Padre Hurtado University.

Chile, a prosperous and stable copper-exporting nation, has a long democratic history, but lived under the authoritarian regime of ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet from 1973-1990.

Parra -- who founded a movement called anti-poetry -- made the exhibit out of large photos of the presidents, mounted on cardboard and hung by their necks.

He named the work “El Pago de Chile,” an expression that roughly means “Ungrateful Chile” and that Chileans use frequently to refer to society’s harsh judgment of its leaders.

“I feel more like a conciliator than a provocateur,” Parra said at the exhibit’s inauguration last week. Bachelet, who is not among the hanged presidents, had been braced for outrage. But it has not materialized.

At the exhibit on Tuesday, students, housewives and workers said Parra was telling a truth about Chilean ungratefulness, and challenged each other to identify all the presidents.

“I suppose it’s not proper to hang them like that, but what I really found wrong was that,” said 55-year-old car painter Luis Ramirez, pointing at another Parra piece, “The Global T-shirt,” showing two huge white shirts with a swastika and a hammer and sickle.

The only muted scandal was an allegation by a producer of the exhibit who said she lost her job at the culture ministry because she challenged the minister’s initial desire to censor Parra’s work. The government has said the dismissal had nothing to do with any complaint of censorship.

Salvat said the ministry had no choice but to go ahead with the exhibit because censorship of Parra, from a clan of famous Chilean artists, might have drawn international criticism.

“I think it’s positive, that a few steps from the national palace the men who were there are hung up like that. It’s ironic. It gives the public something to meditate on, to reflect on, to laugh at,” said Salvat.