Chilean officials throw stones at glass house exhibit

Santiago's downtown has become the stage for a glass-house, testing artistic expression vs. good taste.

Like many struggling actresses, Daniela Tobar gladly accepted a paid - if experimental - theater gig.

Since Jan. 23, the Chilean 20-something has lived, slept, cooked, dressed, and bathed on her 15-by-15 foot stage in downtown Santiago's buzzing financial district. And locals have herded to the show like preteen girls to a Britney Spears Disney television special. But the venue is no drama hall.

Across from a Catholic Church, Ms. Tobar "acts out" the drone of daily life from within a glass house. But at press time, the curtain was set to fall. City officials - citing safety and morality issues - planned to close the exhibit yesterday.

Testing the limits of artistic expression and individual freedom in Chile's post-Pinochet democracy, this performance-art installation underscores what many here call Chile's cultural hypocrisy. The taste vs. censorship flap echoes the Brooklyn Museum of Art's recent choice to display a painting of the Virgin Mary with dung slapped on the canvas. What was supposed to provoke a discussion on privacy has set off a censorship debate.

"It's unusual, yes, but public art like this is something Chile needs more of, I think, says bricklayer Pedro Muoz.

Unfortunately, the discussion has been muddled by forays into voyeurism. "I saw it on TV and I wanted to see it for myself," says Mr. Muoz.

The two young architects responsible for the $23,000 project, Arturo Torres and Jorge Cristi, have been so hounded by the media that they've disconnected their phone lines. An attorney who claims the installation's content broke Chilean decency laws by offending him, has filed suit against them as well.

Nivia Palma, the director of the education ministry art fund (Fondart) which partially paid for the $23,000 glass house, says she too wants to talk to the architects-turned-artists. She understands why they've gone into hiding. Until only recently, local television crews were camped outside her own office.

The glass house, called the Nautilus Project, sits near the corner of Bandera and Moneda streets, just a few blocks from Chile's presidential palace and nearly facing the colonial main entrance of the venerable Santiago Stock Exchange. Fondart director Ms. Palma says the project was an attempt to start a public discussion on the ways many Chileans in the 6-million-person capital experience their daily lives at home.

"We live in such tiny apartments that people have to cook on terraces and hang their laundry out the window to dry," says Palma. "Everyone is so cramped together that privacy is almost unknown to us."

Tobar understands that now more than anyone. The actress was paid $400 to spend 15 days living in the glass structure. Palma says the architects originally planned to ask a man to spend the 15 days on public display but decided late in the process on Tobar, in part, says Palma, to make a statement on the objectification of women.

Be careful what you wish for. Tobar eventually had to ask for police protection from the mobs of young men who gathered at 8 a.m. to see her shower, who soon took to chanting, "Naked! Naked!"

Tobar soon disappeared from the house for several days. A woman similar in appearance to the actress reported to police that a group of men attacked her during the evening.

It's not as if one would have to go far in Chile to be offended, if nudity were the issue: although television is nominally censored and privately purchased import videos are routinely opened and reviewed by customs police, downtown Santiago is chock-a-block with risqu coffee bars full of scantily clad waitresses, some of which are merely window-shopping fronts for brothels upstairs. Most of the grand old 1940s-era cinemas show soft-core pornography, and sex magazines are for sale in open street kiosks.

If the goal of the project was to provoke discussion, it has succeeded.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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