Research project

A study on images, using images - on the Producing landscape, producing identity project.


Sylvie Boisseau and Frank Westermeyer 

The research project titled Produire du paysage, produire de l’identité : regards artistiques, ethnohistoriques et anthropologiques sur le sud du Chili (XIXe - XXIe siècle (‘Producing landscape, producing identity: artistic, ethnohistorical and anthropological perspectives on Southern Chile (19th to 21st century)’ is an extension of our previous work in the video art field. We use documentary images, and as documents, these images refer of course to external realities and act as evidence. In this way, they function with the same qualities as images used in various scientific domains such as medicine, the natural sciences, astronomy or neuroscience, to name but a few. 

To dispel any misunderstanding there might be about the use of documentary image in art work, we would like to highlight here another quality the images have, which resides in their capacity to refer to other images. W.J.T. Mitchell discusses “pictures” that refer to “images”; here, pictures are defined by the presence of a material support while images are mental.1

Our research is based on this double denotation or dual character of images, which both refer to an external reality and to other images. In the course of our preliminary research we identified three conflicts at work within this concept of differentiation between the two statuses of the image (picture - image), bearing witness to the impact and force of images.

1)   The paintings and sketches of Carl Alexander Simon are central to this research project. This German Romantic painter is the main protagonist of what was a predominantly politically-motivated wave of German emigration to Chile.  His drawings and paintings provide the first representations of the landscape of Southern Chile, but they now carry the signature of Vincente Perez Rosales, one of the great Chilean statesmen and head of the colonial mission in Southern Chile.  

2)   The ‘Araucania’ region was an autonomous Mapuche territory until the end of the 19th century. A few exceptions aside, in Mapuche culture and religion there are no great representations or monumental constructions. Some of the central elements of Mapuche religion refer to the specific topography of their environment, located between the Pacific and the Andes (Wallmapu). Today, in the context of a revaluing process, several museums dedicated to Mapuche culture have been created. This raises the issue of how to show or display a culture which abstains from all monumental constructions and expresses itself through practices rather than representations.

3)   The landscape acts as a material support and prop in the conflict of representation between the colonisers and the Mapuche. The colonisers were able to inscribe their image of landscape in Chilean ‘Nature’ and, in this way, make the traditional Mapuche landscape, laden with religious meaning, disappear.

Our study takes shape at the intersection of several discursive fields. Disciplines such as anthropology, ethnohistory, art history, landscape architecture and art, inform our awareness and understanding of the cultural and colonial history of Chile, the division and farming of the land, the production of space and the permanent features of its artistic representations. Combined, they trace the contours of the various facets of a postcolonial concept of landscape.

Our project primarily aims at understanding the role of landscape for identity construction in a (formerly) colonial territory such as the Araucania region of Chile. We attempt to show the points of interference between, on the one hand, the mental images of European landscapes and their projection onto the Southern Chilean land by German colonisers, and, on the other, the real landscape and its mental (religious, mystical) image as it was, and continues to be evoked by the Malpuche. We study Carl Alexander Simon’s German writings and his art work in Chile in order to analyse the first images of the Southern Chilean land, their impact on the colonial project and present potential, in terms of identity reconstruction, for the Malpuche people. Finally, we confront the findings of ethnohistorical and art history studies with a discussion of contemporary artistic positions, in Chile and other South American states, that interrogate the relationship between landscape and identity.

Our main contribution to this project is the film Neue Brüder. The use of static shots and the interweaving narrative structure present an image of landscape that is constructed through the practices that take place within it. Freed from any romanticisation, the landscape is, here, an information aid that highlights the contradiction between the contemplation of the Western countryside and the action taking place within it. The video offers a reflection on representation - the gaze that constructs, projects onto and fantasises the object of contemplation, the landscape. This project creates the context for an enquiry into landscape as a spatial construct marked by a myriad of political, economical and cultural impacts. 

We use superposition as our research method: on the one hand, the superposition of the relationships between pictures and images (Mitchell) and on the other, the superposition of distinct disciplinary approaches. The Chilean philosopher and aesthetician Ricardo Loebell suggests the value of such interdisciplinarity as follows: “Science views History along a chronological axis whereas art lets us get a side view2”.

The research team is made up of the following: Sabine Kradolfer, - anthropologist, Fabien Le Bonniec - ethnohistorian, Katrin Mundt - curator, Eduardo Carrasco - art historian, and the artists Sylvie Boisseau, Bernardo Oyarzun and Frank Westermeyer. This research project is developed at Geneva University of Art and Design – HEAD – and funded by the HES-SO.


1 Mitchell, « Der Mehrwert Von Bildern » in: 
Die Adresse des Mediums, Edited by Stefan Andriopoulos,
Gabriele Schabacher, Eckhard Schumacher, Bernhard Dotzler, Erhard Schüttpelz and Georg Stanitzek. Cologne, 2001, pp. 158 - 184

2 Loebell, Ricardo, “El ala del ojo”, in Revista Mapocho, Primer Semestre, No. 45, Santiago de Chile, Biblioteca Nacional, 1999, pp. 237-250