If the images assembled in the Airmail Paintings can be read as inventories or indices, as I believe they can, they measure and give form to the distance which separates human subjects from their basic existential and historical circumstances. Alongside the inventory of faces and images of dead bodies, we find repeatedly drawings of houses, beds, carts and animals, frequently derived from “how to draw” manuals of the 1950s. These images are schematic with a naive quality of wanting to get it right, in the sense that all that matters is that the object can be identified. To picture is, to be sure, to possess, but the very fact that these drawings follow instructions and models also withholds them. The house is no longer my house but a wish, already formulated elsewhere and in advance, for a house, a home, a point of arrival, or of something to be left behind, etc. And where the object itself is presented, as in the feathers stitched onto several of the Airmail Paintings, we are equally uncertain about their meaning. Are the feathers a metonymy for nature, do they suggest flight, or refer to adornment and decoration? Are they tools for writing? While in each instance it is easy to identify the object, attempts to establish what the representation of the object, or the object as a representation, might mean leads to an identification of a different kind, with a particular way of looking and reading which constitutes a community of readers. By a community of readers I do not mean a group of people who agree on a particular interpretation, nor do I have in mind a group preconstituted by common ideology or belief. What I want to suggest is that a certain kind of art, to which the Airmail Paintings belong, constitutes communities of readers in allowing them to be located and specify a level of shared experience. In Dittborn’s case, at least two such communities can be distinguished. The first of these can be identified with regard to the historical context in which Dittborn’s art practice evolved.
Dittborn belongs to a group of artists and intellectuals who remained in Chile after the coup in 1973. This group had to negotiate the restrictions imposed on artistic activity by censorship and the absence of institutional support, not to mention the dangers to personal safety posed by the dictatorship. In addition they had to operate in a cultural context impoverished by emigration when after 1973 an extimated one million Chileans, about ten percent of the population, became exiles.
Dittborn’s work was closely associated with the avanzada, a group of Chilean artists and writers who were critical of the regime without subscribing to the propagandistic art of the political opposition. Nelly Richard has described their work as follows:
Caught between the risk of official absorption … by the dominant apparatus, and the danger of their forms becoming an instrument of the opposition’s progressive ideology, these practices in fact insisted on an equivocal type of message and resisted any totalization of sense. Thus they proliferated signifiers in order to prevent a reductionist interpretation, they offered many possible readings through the use of multiple, fluctuating referents.
Censorship leads to work being made which calls for a reading centred around the unsaid rather than any discernible content or message. This practice demands a heightened attention to the workings of pictorial and linguistic signs both on the part of the artist and the viewer. Reading between the lines and searching for implicit meanings creates audiences of accomplices who are able to interpret the work in the light of particular experiences and the circumstances. More generally one could say that such audiences form where and whenever the unsaid becomes the structuring principle of reading in the face of repression.
The second community of readers, among whom I count myself, begins by approaching the work at face value, only to discover that it cannot confer value on the face the way it thought it could. This realization opens a space for interpretation while insisting that the reading be in transit also, and conscious of its limits and partiality. While the Western metropolis remains the centre of the art market, the Airmail Paintings suggest that conceptually at least, it has become a location of departure as well as of arrival.