Gabriel Chaile
Los jóvenes olvidaron sus canciones o Tierra de Fuego
ChertLüdde, Berlin
26 April – 24 August 2024

A hand’s quick palm presses against the earth to plaster the wall with clay and sawdust. Still damp and shining, the substrate moves swiftly to cover the metal supports. Adobe – a technique over 4,000 years old, a word that has moved from the Egyptian language to Arabic and Spanish – is a mudbrick material found across many regions of the planet. Here, it settles into the hands of Gabriel Chaile as the central feature of his exhibition Los jóvenes olvidaron sus canciones o Tierra de Fuego at ChertLüdde.

Gabriel Chaile (1985, San Miguel de Tucumán) is known for his large sculptures and installations based on his ongoing research into rituals and popular communal gatherings occurring in his community. Raised in the northern city of San Miguel de Tucumán in Argentina, with Spanish, Afro-Arabic, and Indigenous Candelaria heritage, Chaile uses traditional methods of art production to ensure the cultures of his heritage are not forgotten. He does this by using archetypal materials, forms and symbols associated with pre-Columbian cultures to blend Indigenous mythologies with contemporary social themes. 

In Los jóvenes olvidaron sus canciones o Tierra de Fuego (The youth forgot their song or Land of fire), Chaile presents the premiere screening of an imagined film. Conceived under the same title as the exhibition, it is a film that does not exist in more than hints and suggestions. Where there would otherwise be a screen, the audience is positioned around a three-dimensional fresco fixed in time; neither a projection nor a moving image, the film is “animated” through an adobe relief flanked by two sculptures that break the fourth wall. 

Now hardened and matte, the adobe has dried against the 10-meter-long alcove in the gallery and has become a fictional cinema. Carved within twelve consecutive panels are scores of jungle bushes and strokes outlining the robust build and short proboscis of the tapir. An ancient genus of mammals closely related to rhinos and horses, the tapir is the most primitive large mammal in the world, having existed for over 20 million years. Found across South America, Central America and Southeast Asia, the tapir plays a fundamental role in dispersing seeds through their defecation, making them indispensable to human life and nature. 

Chaile chooses to focus on the native species of Argentina, which are on the verge of extinction due to the rapid disappearance of tropical forests. This backdrop, the jungle, becomes the setting of his make-believe film, in which two shape-shifting tapirs are placed on Earth – an origin story both familiar and new. 

Presented alongside a short synopsis of his script, this adobe relief and the proposed film muddy the boundaries between humans and animals, breaking down higher orders of nature and fostering deeper connections. A commentary on the very real circumstances and the systems threatening the tapirs, Chaile positions his work within a wider discourse of colonial erasure, which has caused the loss of indigenous cultures, traditions and life. 

Adobe, the artist’s signature medium, becomes a powerful tool to fight against further losses. It is a material that connects his work to the pre-Columbian indigenous artistic traditions, the richness of the earth and the ever-evolving gaze through which we view adobe-based art and artifacts. Historically, the medium served well to bind, hold, strengthen and bring people together with mudbrick constructions, ovens and art. Because of these qualities, adobe is a material that was brought into new histories through migration, trade and other exchanges. Chaile continues the material’s history of binding together that which appears separate by imbuing it with diverse references, from ancient artifacts found in Tucumán to the cartoons and movies he grew up watching. Whether ancient or modern, these references are important for the artist to spread to a wider, international audience – continuing what he terms a ‘genealogy of form’. Fused with the story of the resilient tapir, an animal that has also withstood time, the adobe used by Chaile is able to speak more broadly of preservation.

Emerging from the relief are two large tapirs that take their shape in welded steel and nails. As if finding new forms, the metal curvatures of their outlines are shedding their adobe origins, entering the three-dimensional realm from Chaile’s unmoving, earthen screen. This is not the first time the artist has conjured an object that does not exist (anymore). In 2021, the artist presented in the gallery a large sculpture based on an indigenous ocarina, or wind instrument, from South America titled Indudablemente estos músicos están rayados (Undoubtedly, these musicians are scratched). With no record of the object’s sound, Chaile’s sculptural interpretation symbolizes a loss carved from looming silence. The ongoing exploration of his ancestral oral tradition is often foregrounded by missing elements or stories from the widely underrepresented cultural history of Tucumán. Therefore, the lineage of images we do have, which continue to reach into the present moment, is vital. And the film, which is not a film at all but an image that will never be held entirely still, is a larger gesture towards re-framing how we engage with the past – living or lost; fact or fiction. 

In Los jóvenes olvidaron sus canciones o Tierra de Fuego, Gabriel Chaile imagines a film that amasses the relationships between humans and tapirs. In the artist’s script, this idea of holding onto older ways of life is transformed into a memory that the shape-shifting tapirs keep on their bodies. They sustain their own story to ultimately realize what they have created may also lead to their destruction. The artist proposes with this exhibition not to keep things the same, but to find ways of survival even as the stories we tell continue to evolve. 

Photos by Marjorie Brunet Plaza