Outsider Insiders: Francis Alÿs and Melanie Smith at the Liverpool Biennial

There are two artists who moved from Europe to Mexico exhibiting their work as part of the Liverpool Biennial 2018: Francis Alÿs at the VG&M and Melanie Smith at the Bluecoat. Alÿs from Belgium and Smith from the UK. As a country more associated with departures than arrivals, especially with the current US President, Donald Trump’s, emphasis on wall-building and keeping out migrants, this is a good moment to consider Mexico as a place which has a long tradition of being open to receiving outsiders. There have been key periods for growth in immigration to Mexico: the 1930s, when Spain was in the throes of its Civil War, there was an open invitation to those wanting to flee the conflict; welcomes were extended to those fleeing World War II in the 1930s and 1940s; in the 1950s others escaped McCarthyism and the US fear of the ‘red peril’; and so it has continued throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Amongst these numbers were a large number of artists, filmmakers, and writers including individuals as varied as the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, US novelist and screenwriter John Steinbeck, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the US author and activist Audre Lorde, and the Chorley-born artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Added to this distinguished list are Alÿs and Smith. Both of whom are purported to have found in Mexico a space to find themselves as artists and leave behind the politics of home.

I am not yet familiar with Alÿs’ work, but I had the opportunity to see Smith’s work whilst in the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) [Modern Art Museum of Barcelona]. There she had a larger retrospective and it included the recent work being exhibited at the Bluecoat. She uses a variety of different media in her art. Her work portrays humanity set against the backdrop of large scale natural or manmade spaces. It is often dramatic, yet also affecting. Much of her work has been carried out in Mexico, although she has also work in Peru, Brazil and, most recently, Chile. Examples of these are her audio-visual recordings of the British collector and artists Edward James’ jungle space in Mexico in Xilitla: Dismantled 1 (2010) and Henry Ford’s failed experiment in the Brazilian forest in Fordlandia (2014) are expressions of the folly of individuals attempting to control and contain nature as well as subtle commentaries on colonialism.

Her work being shown at the Bluecoat is a video installation, María Elena (2018), named after the town and salt mine owned by the Guggenheim family. María Elena is set in the Atacama Desert in Chile resonant for many reasons and has elements of the significant recurrent themes in her work: labour, nature, and the effects of late capitalist economics on the landscape and people. To understand the significance of the Atacama Desert and as a useful companion piece, it is worth watching Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light, 2010) in which he juxtaposes the grandeur of the space and its significance for international astronomers with the terrible legacy of Augusto Pinochet, who imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared political prisoners during his dictatorship. The Atacama Desert is also rich in copper and nitrates, a significant source of income for Chile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth century and a space of much human exploitation. Previously, at the Bluecoat the Catalan artist, Xavier Ribas’s show Nitrate, explored the significance nitrate mining by British firms in the Atacama Desert. For these and other reasons, this work is highly evocative, captures the scale and drama of this landscape, and suggests at the particularities of its history. In her move from the UK to Mexico, it is clear that Smith has immersed herself in Mexican and Latin American culture, focused on the encounters between outsiders and established communities, and, as a consequence, creates highly nuanced and allusive work.

Having seen the work in Barcelona, in an open gallery space with beanbags as seating and other visitors moving through the space to see other parts of the exhibit, all of which was distracting. Therefore, getting to see it at the Bluecoat has distinct advantages. It is shown in an enclosed gallery space, albeit with some sound leaking from neighbouring installations. The seating is on a plush rug at a curious (and uncomfortable) slant, that vibrates when you see and hear the explosions in quadrophonic sound. The space gives it an immersive feel and makes it easier to spend time with the video. It is non-narrative and multi-layered in its referencing of different times, themes, and concepts. I would recommend going to see it, reading more about the locale and its history to get a deeper understanding, and then, returning to see it again.  Or, just enter into Smith’s evocative dreamscape that is both affirmative and chilling and see what that brings.

Grupo de Estudios Americanos

This is one of interest to those studying American history who speak Spanish.  It is largely an aggregate site, but also has interesting reviews of books, films and events.  It is sporadically updated, but has some interesting analysis and insight.  In their own words: “Grupo de Estudios Americanos (GEA) nació entre personas ligadas al Instituto de Historia de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, con el objeto crear una instancia donde discutir en torno a problemas ligados con la historia americana, principalmente en su período republicano” and can be found here: http://estudiosamericanos.wordpress.com/.

His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Víctor Jara

The full review will be published in the Journal of Socialist History.

Today, I have been working on a review of His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Víctor Jara, a book of lyrics and poetry by the Chilean folk singer, Víctor Jara, whose life story has been overshadowed by his torture and death, yet the power of his music and lyrics live on. Allied with the nueva canción movement in Latin America, his songs draw on folk roots to engage simply and powerfully with the political and social struggles of workers and laborers in Chile and elsewhere.  This is the first bilingual edition of his lyrics and is a welcome publication that should draw in an even wider audience/readership for his poetic songwriting.

Amongst his more popular songs included, such as  “Te recuerdo, Amanda” [I Remember You, Amanda], “Canción del minero” [Miner’s Song], “Plegaría a un labrador” [Prayer to a Labourer], “Preguntas por Puerto Montt” [Questions About the Massacre of Puerto Montt] and “Manifiesto” [Manifesto], is the well known poem/song “Estadio Chile” [Chile Stadium]. He never recorded “Estadio Chile”, because it was written while he was in detention after the coup by General Augusto Pinochet on 11th September 1973.  The song was smuggled out (apparently) in someone’s shoe.  He never escaped and was to die among thousands of others in the football stadium that since 2003 bears his name.  According to the notes in the back of the book “Estadio Chile” was intended to be recited as a poem except for the last verse starting, “Canto que mal me sales/cuando tengo que cantar espanto” [How hard is it to sing/when I must sing of horror], which is to be sung. These words are both an act of defiance and a lament at the terror that he has borne witness to and experienced. Given that he never recorded the song it is not defined by his version, unlike other songs, where to read them is to hear his voice.

Therefore, today I went in search of versions of “Estadio Chile” and came across the following three that I want to share here.

The first is a reading accompanied by music by the US folksinger and activist, Pete Seeger. Seeger gives some background to Jara’s life and recites the poem, although not in its entirety. There is a section missing.






Portavoz, “I write rap with R of Revolution”

The second is by the Chilean rap artist Portavoz [spokesperson]. His version is delivered in a typically strident and angry rap style, with a very tuneful musical accompaniment and his own improvisational riff on the original lyrics towards the end.




The final version is an equally powerful performance by Isabel Parra (daughter of Violeta Parra), which is mentioned in the notes of the book. It is a slow, haunting rendition of only the final verse.  Since the original lyrics in Spanish accompany the version online, I will reproduce the translation by Joan Jara from the book:


How hard it is to sing


Isabel Parra

when I must sing of horror!

Horror in which I am living,

horror in which I am dying.

To see myself among so much

and so many moments of infinity

in which silence and screams

are the end of my song.

What I see, I have never seen.

What I have felt and what I feel

will give birth to the moment…


These words say so much, but also allow space for meaning to be construed by the listener/reader and is characteristic of his style. He packs considerable emotional, political and cultural weight into deceptively simple language. I would recommend that anyone interested in protest songs read this book and use it as a way of listening to his music with a richer understanding of what he has to say. For those keen to know more about Jara, there is a dedicated chapter in Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs which discusses “Manifiesto“. Pinochet’s regime may have tried to silence Jara, but his words live on.


Espada, Martín (2012) His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Víctor Jara, Foreward by Joan Jara, Middlesbrough: Smokestack Books, 83pp, ISBN 978-0-9568144-1-8.

Lynskey, Dorian (2011) 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, London: Faber and Faber.