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Carla Garlaschi and the Labyrinth of Illusion

The Laberinto de Ilusión (Labyrinth of Illusion) is a video by Carla Garlaschi that appears to be a trailer for a TV melodrama, hosted by channel “TV3”. The video continues Garlaschi’s exploration of the machinations of the international art scene, previously explored in her video, The Rich Also Cry. In the Labyrinth of Illusion her enthusiastic embrace of the televisual ‘telenovela’ as a globally successful mass cultural format further extends this inquiry and provides an appropriate and comic vehicle with which to playfully engage with a contemporary art scene riven by ambition, power and intoxicated by the status afforded by cultural capital. The Labyrinth of Illusion is a tempestuous tale of art world intrigue in the style of a TV melodrama, in which Garlaschi casts herself as La Niña, the central protagonist around whom the video’s narrative revolves. When exhibited in a gallery context, like in Garlaschi’s eponymous solo show in Departamento 21 Proyectos de Arte, the video is supported by a cast of discrete, but interrelated works that combine to temporarily supplement the gallery’s regular function as a space in which contemporary art is transacted, by transforming it into a space in which the logic of the ‘telenovela’ prevails and a ‘drama of the gallery’ is played out. Each element comes armed with parodic intent, transforming the gallery into a fully coordinated promotional machine. So no great surprise there, what gallery isn’t? But here it is overt, and achieved by stealth.

Laberinto de Ilusión (2017) Carla Garlaschi

In appropriating the telenovela as a popular but culturally devalued art form, Garlaschi is able to establish a measure of critical distance between herself and her main target, which I take to be the contemporary art scene and its hierarchical power structures. The familiar banality of the telenovela format, provides a protective shield of obliviousness, behind which all kinds of subterfuge might lurk.

Throughout the Labyrinth of Illusion exhibition, Garlaschi mimics the promotional apparatus of the mass-entertainment industry. In accompanying wall text and related works she replicates strategies aimed at luring audience engagement for the video by providing a ‘back story’ to build brand identification and also instigate a process by which she is able to explore her own identity and visibility as a Chilean artist living in Europe. The global nature of contemporary art, and her own transnational circumstances, have sensitized Garlaschi to reflect on the fluidity of her geographic, cultural and social identity. She stages playful, critically astute encounters with the structures in which contemporary art is produced and attains meaning and value. Her work revels in destabilising “known knowns”; the forms of culture, such as the telenovela format, to which most of us have become oblivious, but which, when deployed in her art, becomes productive, ambiguous and troublesome. Often antagonistic cultural forms are repurposed and undergo a process of mutual transition, with each taking on the others’ characteristics. Appearances and identities become disconnected, things are not what they first appear and the viewer is invited to engage in a game of hide and seek, sifting the clues she provides in order to track the video’s plot. It is hardly surprising that the video takes as its title the Labyrinth of Illusion.

Laberinto de Ilusión (2017) Carla Garlaschi, digital video 4'37'' art piece on view Samy Benmayor. Location Galeria AFA.

That she appropriates the format of the hugely popular telenovela is of course significant. An English speaker might assume that the ‘telenovela’ is a Spanish language version of the ‘soap opera’, but this would overlook important difference. Whilst both share stylistic and thematic similarities, their run length differs significantly and has consequences on how the storyline is played out. The measure of a successful ‘soap’ is often demonstrated in its ability to develop multiple story lines that are worked out over a long period of time; the telenovela tends to deliver a concise, self-contained story in less time and results in a much faster-paced style of drama.

Similar to contemporary art, the telenovela operates in a global market and has developed distinct national variants. This shared, ‘local but global’ characteristic establishes a link between forms of ‘mass’ and ‘high’ culture, and proves to be a useful mechanism for exploring issues around identity and power. Garlaschi’s appropriation of the telenovela as a form able to carry additional signifying ‘load’, has precedent. Co-opted by state authorities in order to further their ideological interests and influence the behaviour of the populace, the telenovela has a history of storylines being modified to incorporate the socio-political objectives of the powerful.

Laberinto de Ilusión (2017) Carla Garlaschi, digital video 4'37'', location Galeria AFA

This susceptibility to appropriation and subterfuge seems irresistible to Garlaschi, and underpins her interest in the telenovela as vehicle able to deliver ‘banality as camouflage’; providing her with the cover and critical distance she requires.

In the video Labyrinth of Illusion, romantic comedy and mystery/thriller variants of the telenovela genre are amalgamated to create a 4.36 minutes promotional trailer. In it, the supposedly ‘highbrow’ world of the Chilean contemporary art scene is mercilessly parodied through the format of the ‘low brow’ telenovela. The video begins with scene setting shots of a generic, modern cityscape, before moving into the interior of a contemporary art gallery and an exhibition opening. Scenes of the local glitterati socialising are interspersed with quick edit, close-up shots of small, vaguely erotic sculpture, which everyone seems to ignore, before the camera settles on La Niña, the exhibiting artist and the obvious centre of attention. Accompanied by a soundtrack Garlaschi (aka Princess Prada) created in collaboration with the Reggaeton producer Talisto, the scene is set for the unfolding melodrama. The choice of the Reggaeton soundtrack introduces a particular cultural steer; as a musical genre, it has long been associated with the young urban poor of Latin America. Its fixation with explicit lyrics about poverty, drugs, violence, love and sex, is at the root of its popularity amongst the poor, and the source of anxiety and moral outrage by the middle classes who have repeatedly sought to censure and stifle the music. Garlaschi’s decision to position this disparaged musical form up against what is considered a prestigious, if not elitist social event, clearly announces her intention to introduce a hint of cultural friction.

Laberinto de Ilusión (2017) Carla Garlaschi

In Labyrinth of Illusion, the telenovela form carries an alien narrative, one seldom represented, but nonetheless one recognisable to anyone involved in contemporary art. The raw ambition, wealth, social snobbery, envy, intellectual point-scoring, glamour and sexual intrigue; are themes normally present at most openings, but usually masked by social etiquette, but in Labyrinth of Illusion are stripped of their polite veneer and cast in the crude stereotypical form of telenovela melodrama.

Laberinto de Ilusión (2017) Carla Garlaschi, video still, digital video 4'37''

Though Garlaschi’s La Niña character is at the centre of all of this, she is presented as a somewhat distracted character, around whom the drama unfolds. In the opening sequence she poses, champagne glass in hand, glamorous and responsive to the charms of the camera flashing just out of our sight. A slight tilt of the shoulder, a bigger smile; it seems that La Niña is well versed in the art of promotion and her love of the camera ensure her full attention. Only when the gallery owner informs her that the show has sold out, is her flirtation with the lens interrupted by a comical, ‘ker-ching’ moment, as the camera focuses on her smiling mouth, complete with a glinting gold tooth. At this point, from behind a bunch of flowers, The Maestro appears, with smouldering looks and ominous intent. As La Niña lingers in her self-containment, she is oblivious to the disapproving glances cast by two envious onlookers. At a distance, a local artist and his female companion find comfort in the belief that La Niña’s exhibition and success must have been secured by her sleeping with the gallerist.

The intensity of the envy projected by the woman toward La Niña, seems disproportionate and is further exaggerated by a sequence of increasingly close-up shots of the pair’s scowling faces, accompanied by a disruptive soundtrack. The use of such exaggeration is of course is a classic soap-opera device, fashioned to inflame viewer interest by establishing grounds for potential conflict between the two women in order to reap future dramatic rewards. This is just one of the many clichés borrowed by the artist to saturate her storyline with melodramatic intensity. Others include: crazy close-up reaction shots, rapid jump-cut editing, slow-mo pans, and the use of harsh, abrasive sound effects to punctuate and intensify the drama though aural assault and create a soundscape of threat and conflict. All of this comes to a head in the scene in which The Art Critic and his “date” make their entrance at the exhibition opening. In an onslaught of manic reaction shots, and to the sound of a military drum roll, their arrival finally shakes La Niña from her self-containment. Oddly, the focus of La Niña’s scrutiny appears not to be the critic, but the seemingly gauche young woman who accompanies him. As she stands waiting for her date to return with drinks, the young woman is immediately approached by The Maestro, who promptly insults and humiliates her on the basis that she is inappropriately dressed for such an important occasion; though this does come from a man wearing a fringed leather jacket and half a metre of heavy gauge silver chain around his neck!

Laberinto de Ilusión (2017) Carla Garlaschi, digital video 4'37'', location Galeria AFA

In true telenovela style, from here on in, all hell breaks loose, as The Art Critic returns to confront The Maestro. What follows is a parody of clichéd televisual melodrama with its crass stereotypes, overwrought storylines, dysfunctional relationships and exaggerated stylistic mannerisms. But it also parodies the pomposity of the contemporary art scene with all its class snobbery, narcissism, craving for recognition and intellectual point scoring. In what must be one of the most pathetic provocations ever, in response to the The Maestro’s verbal attack; The Art Critic retorts with: “I see that you have expanded your vocabulary, did you get a scholarship for an online PhD?” This enrages The Maestro who responds by punching the critic in the face; these boys really need to get out more!

But beyond the comedy of the scene, there is something telling in the pathos and insularity Garlaschi presents, and it seems intent to critically reflect on the Chilean contemporary art context in which the work was presented.

Laberinto de Ilusión (2017) Carla Garlaschi, video still, digital video 4'37''

The exaggeration and emotional intensity, so typical of the telenovela, is used by Garlaschi to draw parallels with, and undercut, the cool, detachment and sophisticated demeanour the contemporary art scene likes to imagine it possesses. She gives it a new shape; dresses it in vernacular and garish costume; traces its structure in ‘inappropriate’ narratives, which though familiar, are despised as they effectively render it vulnerable to comparison and ridicule. But in all of this, despite securing temporary cover for her subterfuge through the decoy of play, the artist is aware of the precarious balance between critique and compliance and her own position within this relationship. Despite its obviously playful nature an undercurrent of menace runs throughout Labyrinth of Illusion.

The nature of this menace is ambiguous, the La Niña character, whilst at the centre of the narrative, is not the focus of the action, this happens around her. Within the video, we see her make contact with unseen, but clearly significant figures via telephone conversations, but it is never clear who is on the other end of the phone. As a device, this ‘significant other’ is a familiar dramatic trick to insinuate the presence of an outside power, anonymous, and usually malevolent. Intrigue thrives on ambiguity and in the Labyrinth of Illusion exhibition; nothing is quite what it first appears. The Labyrinth of Illusion is a promotional video for a fictional telenovela. The dialectical movement between incompatible interior, and exterior identities, is repeatedly formalised throughout the video. La Niña, who remained outside the fury and conflict that takes place inside the gallery, is later seen, relaxed and intimate in a plush modernist house, consoling The Maestro,. As the lovers passionately embrace and fall onto the nearby bed, the camera pulls away and tracks a line of contemporary art publications that take us back, full circle, to the bed, and a now sleeping La Niña. With the implied passage of time having been established, the bed and sleep become the context for a purple-hazed dream sequence in which La Niña is berated by The European Curator for believing that her “great life”, “is nothing but an egocentric obsession, a product of growing up in a country devastated by the Neoliberal experiment.” This abrupt, calling up of Chile’s nightmarish political past is a salutary, if a hectoring reminder of the historical conditions that shape La Niña’s, and by extension, Garlaschi’s own story as an artist. Toward the end of the Labyrinth of Illusion video, we again see La Niña on the telephone as she receives an ominously silent call from a silhouetted figure. The sense of quiet threat from this anonymous figure may be a noire-ish filmic cliché, but it still has a chilling force to it. This is further heightened in the final scenes of the video as La Niña’s anxious and troubled reaction to the phone call fades to black and is replaced by the image of the coin commissioned by Pinochet to commemorate his coup d’état - and that still circulates in the Chilean market and people’s pockets, accompanied by the sound of a military drum beat, growing steadily louder.

David Campbell

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