Maria Veronica San Martin

07. In their Memory. Human Rights Violation in Chile_performance.jpg

Book Artist Maria Veronica San Martin. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview conducted by 
Zora Martin (Scripps '18) 
Rae Harris (Scripps '19)
Emily Collins (Scripps '19)

María Verónica San Martín (b. 1981 in Santiago, Chile) has exhibits in New York, Antofagasta (Chile) and Washington DC. Her work has also been exhibited at the Stanford University Museum, CA, The Museum of Memory and Human Rights and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Santiago, Chile. She is currently doing the Studio Program at The Whitney Museum ISP (2017-2018), and recently finished a Scholar residency at The Center for book Arts for the year 2017. Her work focuses on the disappearance of people in Chile. San Martin lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. You can view María's artwork at

We read about how you started your work by searching for your missing family members. How did you go from searching for the truth to using book arts to push for social justice for the people of Chile?

I don't have any direct family members missing, instead, as a Chilean, my work takes part of a collective search for the missing. For me, printmaking is not just a technique, but rather an aesthetic: a conceptual medium within the book arts that I use to further explore the theme of memory through various representational strategies. In this sense the experience—the process of creating an etching, which involves washing the stencil’s excess and carving out a wooden surface—creates an image that disappears and then reappears, printed on the paper.

I was born during the dictatorship and came of age in the so-called return to democracy in the early 1990s. My perspective is as a second-generation witness of the regime’s atrocities, and a first-generation artist experiencing the legacy of the dictatorship on the collective body. I’m giving testimony of a present built upon the legacy of the dictatorship. In this sense, both my books and my practice reject the modernist idea of a progressive history with a fixed past, and thus immanent meaning.

What is your ideology behind your work? 

I consider art a tool of social change, and my principal aim is to question power relations in the World Order, creating within the viewer the idea that things could be different and therefore the desire for change. My work starts from the dictatorial violence in Chile (1973-1990), vis-à-vis the United States’ involvement in that violence, to address memory as a pivotal factor for understanding the neoliberal, globalized present.

In your book Indignity & Resistance in the Foothills of the Andes. A Case Study of Villa Grimaldi, what influenced how you chose to depict the Villa?

Villa Grimaldi (1973-1978) was an infamous and clandestine center in Santiago hidden in the foothills of the Andes mountains operated by the military during the Pinochet Regime that functioned not just as a torture center, but also as a place that made people disappear. This late technique of forced disappearance created by the intelligence service made me interested in the archives. It deserves special attention because today we are still looking for the victims. They are the landscape of memory.

While the abstracted images you chose are striking, you have used photographs in some of your other pieces. What led you to choose abstraction over stark realism in this book?

As you said, in earlier pieces, I based the images on emblematic photographs and portraits as a pictorial document to archive the historical accounts of the regime. In the case of Villa Grimaldi, there was no record of the actions happening inside of the center, so instead of images, I based it on a file of an oral account that serves as a starting point to build my illustrations. I based my research on the testimonies of those who survived and interviews with victims to be able to re-imagine and depict the system of work that operated there daily. My etchings become a translation of an economy, ghostly-traces that represent images of torture on the one hand and actions of resistance on the other, while on the other side of the wall the beauty of the Andes Mountains depicts an unconscious environment.

For me, everything starts with how much I’m able to dig into the archives to then construct a work of art that speaks for itself. Following that idea, and working as an artist and activist, at some point you need to make a political abstraction to represent the unrepresentable, in terms of suffering. For example, I am now working on a conceptual piece that will be shown at the Studio Artist Exhibition at the Whitney Independent Study Program that will then travel with other works of mine to The National Archive in Chile.

This latest work titled Colonia Dignidad (tr. Dignity Colonyis based on an infamous commune led by Nazi and DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) officials in southern Chile that operated as a torture center during the dictatorship. This "sect" committed multiple crimes against humanity—including torture, execution, and child abuse—and today the cases remain unsolved because of a problem attributed in part to the lack of legislation from both the Chilean and German governments. Since it is still operated by the commune, I cannot map the bunker structures, but I ended up resolving the work with a political abstraction as I mentioned before. Referring to Nazis in Chile, I construct and deconstruct the symbols of power, such as the swastika, the Catholic and armed forces’ crosses, and the SS, signaling, in turn, spaces of segregation and repression. For this work, I have been working for two years with the support of the Association of Memory and Human Rights of Dignity Colony and the testimony of the lawyer Winfried Hempel.

What is the symbolism or meaning behind the orange streak on the cover?

An urgent call to solve national and international issues regarding the crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship.

What was your goal when making Indignity & Resistance? What did you hope to achieve with the book - raise awareness, tell a story, or call for action?

All of those. My goal is to contribute to the efforts to clarify the past from the field of art. Of course, this action is in addition to the many other fields in search of the true, justice, and preserving memory.

By creating the Villa Grimaldi artist book and other works, I want readers to be conscious of what happened in the southern cone during the 70s and 80s: the political history and the involvement of the CIA and each country’s military. I want schools to include this period of history in their academic books and education. I want readers to be sensitive to the story. I want readers to participate within the spaces of memory constructed by the books when I present them, and more importantly, to think and reflect on not just human rights violations, but also on how to humanize the world.

What drew you to Villa Grimaldi forty years after it closed? 

In 2013, Chile commemorated the 40th year after the coup through different actions in the cultural field. In this context, I was invited to exhibit a work called Memory and Landscape, unveiling this historic truth at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, while living in Washington, DC. In 2015, I felt the necessity to continue working with memory, but with a focus on something site-specific, so I thought immediately about Villa Grimaldi for the symbolism of its tower and its modus operandi. It’s a memorial now, so I asked the directors and vice-president Cristian Castillo, who was also exiled, to let me work with the oral archives and grant me permission and consent to make a work of art about the case. I also worked with the testimony of Gladys Diaz, leader of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (tr. Revolutionary Left Movement), who survived after being tortured three months inside of the tower.

What do you like about book arts as opposed to other mediums of art?  How do you think it impacts the way that people interact with your work?

My books and my practice reject the modernist idea of a progressive history with a fixed past, and thus immanent meaning.  In so doing, I participate within the spaces created when my two-dimensional works transform into three-dimensional imaginary sites of memory, as my books and engravings are also sculptures. In other words, the deployment of the books and their various forms of assembly end up overcoming the traditional format of a codex, becoming sculptures that I call “memorials.” These memorials are not there to be contemplated in the distance, but rather to be touched, mobilized again and again, inviting the viewer to participate in the experience of the work and its spatial and temporal possibilities. An important aspect of the practice is to learn from the audience’s experience; to exchange thoughts.  Exemplary of all of the above, my recent series, Moving Memorials is an ongoing project that is a traveling exhibition of program and events started in 2012 in conjunction with Booklyn, Inc. Composed of several artist books in constant transformation, the series, in its mobility, rejects a fixed past and an idealistic progress, calling instead for an open narrative, like an open book. Creating spaces to activate the viewer’s affects through the experience of silence, that very silence, then, transforms into a metaphoric voice in the present.

Maria Veronica San Martin