Geometry of Conscience

Artist: Alfredo Jaar
Location: Museum of Memory and Human Rights,
Santiago, Chile
Year of completion: 2010
Researcher: Gregory Door

In creating a memorial for the victims, living and dead, of the 17-year Pinochet military dictatorship, artist Alfredo Jaar made a radical departure from the typical monumentalization of loss and grief. Housed on the grounds of Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, the memorial is situated underground.

Access to the memorial is restricted to only ten people at a time, and viewing the piece takes approximately three minutes. Visitors descend by 33 steps into absolute darkness. After a full minute in the dark, 500 silhouettes—each representing a victim of the regime—slowly brighten on one wall, reflected infinitely in two facing, mirrored side-walls. After the lights reach their full intensity, they snap off, plunging the viewers into darkness, with an intense afterimage left on their retinas.

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The legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, which ended only 24 years ago, is still fresh in the lives of Chileans today. Thousands of citizens were murdered by his government, and tens of thousands were tortured or imprisoned for political reasons. At the time of his death in 2006, Pinochet faced hundreds of charges of crimes against humanity. Truly, the dictatorship touches the lives of everyone alive today in Chile.

It is fitting then, that half of the 500 silhouettes depicted in Jaar’s memorial belong to living Chileans; the other half are those of the “disappeared.” As a result, the work is “not a memorial not for victims only but rather for the 17 million Chileans who are alive today and trying to retrace their common history,” according to Capucine Gros, Jaar’s studio manager.

In the universe of public memorials, The Geometry of Conscience stands out. Most memorials are static places of contemplation and memory. As such, they insert a gap between the past that is remembered and the living present. This distance between those who mourn and those for whom they mourn is shortened in Jaar’s piece. In part this is because of the mixture of photographs used for the memorial, and in part it’s because of the piece’s unique physicality.

Not only is the piece profoundly unsettling as it imposes a relative isolation and deprives the viewers of light; it also builds physicality into a central role of the function of the experience. “The after-image effect imprints their retinas with a million dots of light and physically embeds the silhouettes into the audience’s visual memory,” says Gros. “The work’s success, therefore, relies on both the conceptual understanding of the work (the viewer’s intellect and feelings) and the audience’s inevitable physiological reception to it (the viewer’s body).”

The Geometry of Consciousness was completed in 2010. Jaar, a Chilean, is highly acclaimed for his work in film, photography, public interventions, which frequently include light boxes. He represents Chile in the 55th Venice Biennale.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency