Most pictures fade away only moments after they see the light of day. Unnoticed, they sink into insignificance, like a joke we are apt to forget once we have heard its trivial punch line. Or like some people, who have left no traces except in the filing cards of an administrated life that somehow slipped through the cracks. Several recent series of drawings by Eugenio Dittborn, who has been one of the most influential voices in Latin America’s art scene since the 1980s, are dedicated to the brief and ephemeral appearance and disappearance of pictures, people—and jokes.
Dittborn gathers the debris along the highways of visual culture: photographs and illustrations from second-rate magazines, anonymous drawings, found scribbles. Under the draftsman’s hand, the gleaned motifs resurface in variations. Tracing lines on the paper, Dittborn builds a new presence and history for them. Black ink and white “liquid paper” reveal and conceal themselves on the surface of the composition, forever approaching a figural definition that is never assured and that will be transmuted in the next step.
It is a melancholy figure. Each picture starts out as a resumption of a theme that was never really interesting to anyone. Each motif derives from a source that has run dry, and now, bereft of its history, it evolves into a new and disjointed sequence of instants. The theme cuts to the heart of Dittborn’s oeuvre: under the Pinochet dictatorship, thousands of Chileans vanished without a trace. Earlier, colonial regimes had erased lives and their stories. Culture and identity—both have repeatedly been effaced, swallowed up by power and violence, marginalized.
Beginning in 1986, Eugenio Dittborn responded to this history by devising a distinctive genre, the so-called Airmail Paintings, which brought him international renown. He folded his pictures, which he could not show in Chile due to censorship, and mailed them to recipients abroad, who unfolded them and presented them in exhibitions all over the world. The works bore the marks of the constant uncertainty in a society in which dissimulating and witnessing, trying to forget and conjecturing, averring and disagreeing, dying and smiling to oneself defined the asynchronous rhythm of everyday life under a repressive regime.
The same rhythm informs Dittborn’s drawings. They are the return of something vague that looms on the edge of perception and now attains form. Until the next form overtakes the first. None of this is funny in and of itself. What is funny, however, is the way the motifs drift when the draftsman allows them the room they need to evolve as they will. And how a stroke of the pen and another stroke, tiptoeing around the question of visibility, can build up to an absurd struggle over perspectives and meanings. A struggle over deception, assertion, and ignorance, over faulty logic, and, yes, also over the spirit of anarchy.