August 22, 2006

Hang ’em high presidential art tests Chile limits

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (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 hung 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.