– Spring 2012

Disarmed and Equipped: Strategies, Politics and Poetics of the Image in Eugenio Dittborn’s Airmail Paintings

Ana Maria Risco

Eugenio Dittborn, airmail painting #128, La XXIV Historia del Rostro (Aljo Violet) (The 23rd History of the Human Face (Aljo Violet)), 1999, tincture, cotton fabric, stitching and photosilkscreen on 2 sections of duck fabric, 2.1 × 2.8m, detail. Photograph: Jorge Brantmayer. Courtesy the artist

A few years ago, in the course of some academic research, I conducted a series of conversations with Eugenio Dittborn in order to acquaint myself with the physical details of his work. Our dialogues took place at his studio in Santiago, close to the great mountain range that separates Chile from the rest of the world. Whenever possible, we would speak in front of a painting that Dittborn would unfold for the occasion. At some point, I’m not sure exactly how, we started talking about a British film that was very present on Dittborn’s mind, but that was for me just a fuzzy memory of a story I’d seen on TV: The Man Who Never Was (1956), the film version of the spy William Martin’s exploits. Martin is renowned for accom­plishing his final World War II secret mission as a corpse — that is, after he had died. Dittborn rapturously talked about this dead spy, loaded with false information that had been carefully stuck onto what he was wearing. Meanwhile, my own memory began to gradually recover images of his body, whipped by the undertow on an abandoned Spanish beach in the opening images of Ronald Neame’s film.1

The thing that made the appearance of this filmic reference (and of that astonishing feat of espionage that helped the Allied forces in Africa in 1943 reach the European coast) both necessary and possible in our conversation evaded me for a while. But then I began to see connections and complicities, pulled by Dittborn during our chat like surreptitious strings, between the fragile and remanded papers of his airmail works

  1. The film is based on one of the main characters in a best-selling book of the same name, by Ewen Montagu (London: Evans Brothers, 1953).

  2. ‘Two months ago, at a roundtable discussion on airmail painting held in Canada, I was asked in a rather urgent tone what was political in my work. I replied that the political in my work dwells inside the folds of the airmail paintings (like a poisonous powder hidden in there).’ Eugenio Dittborn in conversation with Sean Cubitt, ‘An Airmail Interview’, reprinted from ‘Camino Way’, in Mapa: Pinturas Aeropostales/The Airmail Paintings of Eugenio Dittborn 1984—1992 (exh. cat.), London and Rotterdam: ICA and Witte de With, 1992, pp.20—26. It is significant that in the Spanish Dittborn uses the term ‘doblez’, which means ‘fold’ as well as ‘duplicity’.

  3. For more about this point see Claudio Guerrero Urquiza, ‘El origen de la estrategia aeropostal de Eugenio Dittborn: coyuntura y condiciones de su recepción’, Punto de fuga, no.1, 2006. Also available at http://www.revistapuntodefuga.com/?p=275 (last accessed on 21 November 2011).

  4. ‘Envelopes contain airmail paintings as pregnant mothers contain unborn children afloat in the amniotic fluid. As the house in the woods contains blazing light in the night-time. As tombs contain white bones. The envelopes, then, were three in number: womb, house, tomb.’ E. Dittborn, ‘Roadrunner VII’, in Fugitiva: Pinturas, dibujos, textos, Pinturas Aeropostales recientes, Santiago de Chile: Fundación Gasco, 2006. Reprinted in this issue in a revised version, pp.76—77.

  5. Pablo Oyarzún, ‘Eugenio Dittborn, La ciudad en llamas’, El rabo del ojo, Santiago de Chile: Editorial Arcis, 2003, p.89.

  6. Nelly Richard, ‘Nosotros/los otros’, in Mapa: Pinturas Aeropostales/The Airmail Paintings of Eugenio Dittborn 1984—1992, op. cit., pp.97—98.

  7. Ronald Kay, El espacio de acá. Señales para una mirada americana, Santiago de Chile: V.I.S.U.A.L. Ediciones, 1980, pp.23—24.

  8. Roberto Merino and E. Dittborn, ‘Marcas de Viaje’, Remota: The Airmail Paintings of Eugenio Dittborn/Las Pinturas Aeropostales de Eugenio Dittborn, New York and Santiago de Chile: New Museum of Contemporary Art and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Santiago de Chile, 1997, pp.24—27.

  9. See Allan Sekula, ‘Der Körper und das Archiv’, in Herta Wolf (ed.), Diskurse der Fotografie, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 2003, pp.269—334. See also Marisol Palma, Bild, Materialität, Rezeption: Fotografienvon Martin Gusinde aus Feuerland (1919—1924), Munich: M-Press, 2008.

  10. The Tierra del Fuego native Jemmy Button was taken by Fitzroy to England in 1880, along with three other natives, on the HMS Beagle. His history and image have come to symbolise the cultural negotiations and arguments that took place over the representation of the Native American under colonialism.

  11. See Desa Philippi, ‘Distancia de la memoria, las pinturas aeropostales de Eugenio Dittborn’, Revista de Teoría, no.2, 2000, pp.53—66. Philippi narrates the image’s tortuous journey: ‘Benny “Kid” Paret had his last fight on the Madison Square Garden canvas ring, in New York. It was shown on US television; a UPI photographer took a snapshot of the screen, the Chilean magazine Gol y Gol bought the image from the same agency and they published it in 1962. In the late 1970s, Dittborn acquired an issue of the magazine by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Santiago and began to work on the photograph, transforming it through various blow-up and re-printing processes.’

  12. See Hans Belting, Imagen y culto: una historia de la imagen anterior a la era del arte, Madrid: Akal, 2009, p.74.