Eugenio Dittborn has been producing “airmail paintings” since 1984. Born and based in Santiago, Chile, Dittborn studied art at the University of Chile, then in Paris, Madrid, and West Berlin. Eventually, he began to experience a certain “phobia of painting,” which led to experimentation in rather unconventional materials, ranging from bird feathers to burnt motor oil to the jute sacking material used in Chile to transport potatoes. Despite this marked departure, the ghost of classical brush and canvas oil painting—as well as the entire institution behind it—still haunts Dittborn’s work. The first unofficial Airmail Painting, now lost, was a piece of wrapping paper spotted with paint, sent to the XII Paris Biennial. The simplicity of the piece and its act of travel from Latin America to Europe—the birthplace of Western art—is an intentional nod to colonial history and the idea of culture, that the “other” must imitate and reproduce what is canonically accepted. The works are now packaged in heavy duty envelopes marked with their specific destination, containing another envelope meant for the return journey. This is choice made out of pragmatism under the Pinochet regime, but one that has evolved and continued for its metaphorical weight.
Dittborn’s solo show at Alexander and Bonin, featuring his eight most recent Airmail Paintings and two video works, closed on June 23rd. These works are created on one of two types of materials, a “light synthetic non-woven material” and an absorbent duck fabric, both of which retain the creases from being folded and packaged. Building on the foundation of the lines from folding, the surfaces are covered with a dizzying array of markings the artist calls “palotes” or “pre-writing strokes” and silk-screened layers of appropriated images. Dittborn’s catalog of images comes from magazine and newspaper clippings, books, sketches, well-known engravings, cartoons, and how-to manuals. Hanging next to each work is the envelope it came in, marked in careful handwriting. The inclusion of the airmail packaging is a reminder of the shifting of states the paintings can be in, which was particularly on my mind when I visited the show in the late hours of its very last day. I couldn’t help but imagine the works on the wall getting stuffed back into their envelopes—like refolding maps, the lines are already there to follow.
As Dittborn put it, “The Airmail Paintings are not conceived for only one place that acts as their support. They are conceived to be doubly supported: in the first instance by the international airmail network through which they circulate (the airplanes, customs checks, and postmen serve as their support producing their circulation). The Airmail Paintings are also supported by the receiver or destination: the walls of the exhibition space to which the works have been sent. With regard to the hypothesis that Airmail Paintings are conceived for only one place, I want to say that the place would be-paradoxically speaking-the traffic, the circulation, or, definitively, the circularity.”
The video works playing in the basement continue Dittborn’s work of collage and juxtaposition. In Cinco Bocetos Preparatorios Para la Historia de la Musica (Five Preparatory sketches for the History of Music) (1986/2008), discordant sounds and images are layered together to tell the story. There is no linear narrative, which is perhaps a struggle against the idea of a universal history. In one scene, a man smilingly plays a tune on the piano, which becomes more dissonant while his direct gaze becomes more disconcerting.
The other video, titled El Crusoe (1990/2008) shows a man stumbling out of the water on a sandy beach. A woman’s voice narrates the story of Robin Crusoe in Spanish in the background, it is never made clear if the man the camera follows is meant to represent that protagonist. He pulls a soggy piece of paper out of his pocket and inspects it. Whatever is on there is withheld from the audience, no scrap of meaning is ever revealed to us.