Interview in Untitled Magazine, Power Issue #3,
"It's a Wild World" translation by Ethel Seno:
E: Do you find that people who know your work are surprised when they meet you?
V: Sometimes that happens. People think that I’m a dark person or something like that for my paintings, because they are a little tenebrous or even satanic, they say —
E: A pleasant surprise. Well, we’re thrilled you’re here and can talk about power and conspiracy, which is this issue’s theme. Do you think your experience is different from those who grew up in the United States — how did growing up in Chile under a dictatorship influence your vision?
V: Of course my experience is different ... While the people growing up in the US in the seventies lived one of the best times, in countries like Chile it was the opposite, very poor and tightly controlled. When you live the reality of a dictatorship, you quickly realize that something is not right.
E: What wasn’t right?
V: Chile was a place without culture, where there was fear,
where you couldn’t express yourself freely, where you could even disappear for opposing the government — this is something really intense. And you realize that the government conspires against you. When you are under the power of a government that keeps you down, with violence and censorship, it’s easy to grow up believing that institutions are a farce, and you are alone.
E: So that is the grand disillusion that you’ve spoken of.
V: Exactly: what is supposedly there to take care and protect you, finally, is there to enslave you. There was a moment during the dictatorship when they asked me in an intelligence test if I thought where was an international conspiracy. I was only ten years old, and they were asking this in school. For me the question itself reflected that there was a conspiracy; it was suspicious. They wanted to know what our parents were telling us, and if we said yes, they would probably arrive at our house. It’s like George Orwell’s book 1984 — the dictatorship was a little bit like that. With the censorship they burned books and destroyed artworks by artists considered Marxist. And on TV during this time the government had ads saying, “We are good, and tomorrow better!”
E: Could you tell me more about what you feared?
V: I started to feel it when I was in middle school; that’s when I started to experience the violence of the police. I feared them because they did what they wanted. There were times they detained me for walking in the street — many times on my way home they asked me to pay them money so I didn’t have to spend hours in a jail cell. In general they were aggressive and always insulted and hit you. So, it was authority I was afraid of, the uniforms.
E: Do you think that people in Chile have forgotten this traumatic past?
V: Actually in Chile right now they are questioning the legacy of the dictatorship.
E: So you don’t feel like it’s your work to remind them of it?
V: No, because I don’t want to talk about the dictatorship in my work. In the end, with time, I realized that the dictatorship didn’t just happen in Chile but it happened in many places. Chile was a copy of what was happening in other parts of the world. So what
I want speak of is about a more general plan.
E: You’ve compared your work as an artist more to that of a musician than an intellectual.
V: Well, that’s for various reasons. On one side, I studied art, and the impression I had was that it was trying to mould me all of the time; I felt very repressed. From there I managed to create a kind of distance from theory and the intellectuality of the institution because I felt that instead of encouraging me, it limited me. Faced with this reality, what I did with rage perhaps, was to take a more rebel posture, and to assume that art, like I always thought as a kid, was something more natural. It doesn’t interest me to make complex art for theorists and intellectuals; it interests me to make art that anyone can understand.
E: If what you’re exploring is human nature, don’t you feel like that through human history there has always been a dark side?
V: Yes, absolutely. I think that brutality has predominated in society despite the fact that there have been great artists, scientists, intellectuals … What has predominated is the interests of a few, and instead of creating a society with a sustainable future, that has made us a society heading directly toward collapse.
E: “Hell is around the corner,” you mentioned, Tricky’s song lyrics. So ultimately what you show in your paintings with regards to power does reflect your vision of reality.
V: I feel that the world is a marvelous place that has been corrupted. You know, that it’s an incredible place to live, and life is beautiful, but the social system is corrupted and perverse. There is no power without conspiracy. In fact I think that we all conspire directly or indirectly, and we are responsible for what is happening through our actions and inactions. For example the war — it’s one of the biggest most terrible conspiracies, and I share the view of Noam Chomsky when he says that in this country, if all the citizens stood up and said no to the war, it wouldn’t be possible to invade other countries.
E: After growing up with the “side b” or nightmare of American foreign policy in Latin America, has your critique of the US changed since you first visited in 2009 and since moving to Los Angeles last year?
V: Not my vision of the government or history or the influence of this country, but yes, my vision of Americans, of the people who live here, has changed. I’ve found that there are people who are against the perversity we talked about or that there are people who are simply innocent of what is happening. The coup d’etat in Chile in 1973 was the opportunity for the US to impose the economic theories of the Chicago school, which we know today as neo-liberalism. It affected the whole world, and it is now collapsing in Chile and even in the US. I also find that there is a very rich culture, and in her best moment, the US has enabled the growth of a lot of popular culture based in commerce, like in music, and film, and in art as well — really admirable things have happened. It’s a country that’s impossible to describe in a sentence, that’s full of contradictions.
E: In other interviews, you’ve pointed out “blindness” as a theme.
V: Yes, ignorance is a form of blindness —
E: Is that why you don’t paint eyes in your paintings?
V: It’s not an idea that I arrived at right away, but when I was looking at caricatures from the forties and fifties, with the big eyes made with simple black spots, I was attracted to the idea of the mask, of the absence of eyes like of somebody without awareness. And I began to use it more and more until it became my own stamp. I was able to sum up a lot of things in a simple image of a smiling face with a big Pinocchio nose that’s also a sausage, among other things, and also like a clown’s — and these eyes that don’t see.
E: What about lies?
V: For me, in some way, everything is a lie. When you go to the supermarket, the whole design of the supermarket or the mall is made to seduce you, to manipulate you. It’s the same on TV, in magazines, and with all advertising. I think that people are realizing that their lives are being degraded: they have to work more, they don’t have security or insurance like they did before, and all of this because a few people with power swindled the system. They say crisis, but it’s not a crisis, it’s a fraud, a robbery. It’s not that there isn’t money, but that it’s concentrated in a few sectors. And the people that provoked this continue in their positions so the same logic continues.
E: Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the job of the artist is to upset all the senses, and to provide new vision and new powers of adjusting and relating to new situations.” Do you relate to that?
V: I never took that position so consciously. I started with frustration and anger, and disillusion, but in a certain way, yes, I agree. A colleague once told me that my work is important because I show how we are. And when I started using it, humor attracted me a lot as a way of demystifying, to remove the veil from a lot of concepts that we take as facts but that are in reality farces. For example, when you go to the newsstand and see all the magazines with everyone smiling, I find it delirious.
E: Could we go back to the moment that you felt that everything was diabolic?
V: That was many years ago, before I left Chile for Barcelona, when my reality as an artist in Chile collapsed — finally a moment arrived when it was confirmed for me that all the world was conspiring, everyone was tricking each other, and I couldn’t trust in anyone. It produced a kind of paranoia that I was able to counter by traveling, and by getting other perspectives, knowing other people and cultures. I think I was exhausted from living in a country that never really left the dictatorship. I couldn’t grow as an artist there.
E: Even the animations you watched, which were supposed to entertain you, did you feel that they were evil?
V: Yes, especially the older animations where the prejudices and racism were more evident. Now it’s not really like that because society has evolved; it’s more open. But in the old animations you could see the clichés and stereotypes. Even in Walt Disney, in the comics that arrived in Chile, you would see Uncle Scrooge or Scrooge McDuck traveling the world in search of wealth, and they would arrive in a place with indigenous people with a lot of gold, and he and his nephews would take it and be happy. For me all of this is a form of cultural colonization.
E: Is there any painting in particular that represents with symbols or other ways your idea of power and conspiracy?
V: One of my favorite paintings is of two Victorian girls with flags, very patriotic, smiling in a small cart that is carrying missiles (Suplica a mi madre). I was inspired by a photograph that I saw
of some children in Israel writing on missiles, “From Israel, With Love” — something that seemed to me terrible. This image of children celebrating death inspired the painting of kids celebrating patriotism, armed and ready to do damage. In other paintings, I’ve used the inverted cross to touch on the theme of religion as a conspiracy.
E: The subjects of your paintings are children, and you’ve said that you never paint adults, though in one of your more recent paintings there is a man whose face is covered with sausages.
V: I find it much more entertaining to paint children as a reflection of who we are. Adults for me are already completely corrupted. That’s why if you see adults in my work, it’s like the old animations of Tom and Jerry where you never see the faces of the adults, maybe only their feet. It’s a little bit of this idea that the child world and adult world are different universes. In this painting (Written Forgotten), I was inspired by the idea of indoctrination — the guy is reading a book, a black book that could be the Bible or a history book or a book on good customs. I think a lot of these books that teach children what is good always hide something; they are part of indoctrination. I distrust institutions so much that I think even education can sometimes be a part of manipulation!
E: Have you always titled your paintings with popular song titles?
V: I started about five or six years ago. It’s been about that long that I’ve been using music as a constant parallel in my work, almost as if the paintings were songs. The titles are a way to make a link to music because I really believe that paintings without sound or music — even if it’s just subliminal — are so boring. When I was a child and visited my uncles, they would show me their drawings and the records they had of musicians like Pink Floyd or Vangelis, and the music stimulated me so much because it was really visual. You listen to Pink Floyd and it has sounds of animals and ambient sounds, and a ton of others, that as a child it was like it’s own universe.
E: You’ve been cited as a “pop surrealist” artist for your references to comics and animations, but perhaps you feel more identified as a political artist?
V: I’m identified with Pop Surrealism because it was the movement that I saw on the Internet before I left Chile. I thought it was fascinating to mix comics and traditional painting — that’s the only real link I have to Pop Surrealism. I was on the other side of the world from where it was coming from, so my connection is very indirect. Also, I think there is politics in my paintings, maybe not directly but subliminally, and I don’t see that in Pop Surrealism. I think my paintings are of the subconscious and from there they are ambiguous — what they have is a sense of the sinister, of what’s there everyday but that we don’t see. Maybe I’m more connected to poetry than any kind of theory or discourse; my work is more like political poetry in a way.
E: What projects are you excited about now?
V: I am showing in a biennial in Lyon, France, and I have a solo show coming up in Hamburg, and in New York next year, but beyond that, what I have had pending for a while is to explore animation. There I can bring together all of my interests: sound, music, comics, and stories — one detail I haven’t mentioned yet is that all my paintings tell a story through an action or a moment, or a game. There is a lot of cruelty in my work, a cruelty that is for the most part innocent. Children are cruel without knowing it, and I think that many times we are the same. Animation would be a way to develop the narrative.
E: Anything else before we go?
V: Something important, yes. I never forget where I came from, for the experience that I have. I would never pretend not to be Chilean, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to talk only about Chile. I am conscious that my reality, my image, and my person as a artist is because I am Chilean, for what I lived — I lived thirty years there, and I’m never going to unlearn that. But I don’t see it as something negative any more; on the contrary, I think that the negative experience finally gave me perspective.
E: Oh, and finally, is it true that you never sign your paintings in front?
V: It’s true because I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it’s conservative, and I think it can even be a bother on my paintings. My signature is the faces, the eyes, the noses … and the light!