This is a tale of cyber-archeology, art and post-colonial politics. Plans by two Argentinian artists to ship a 37 ton meteorite from Argentina to Kassels, Germany in time for the Documenta 13 Art Exhibition have been suspended in response to an international campaign to protect aboriginal rights.
The meteorite, known as El Chaco (pictured above in the midst a Moqoit ceremony), is considered sacred by the Moqoit First Nation. El Chaco is the largest fragment from a meteor that exploded 4,000 years ago over north-central Argentina and Moqoit ancestral territory. The remains of the explosion are and have been significant sacred artifacts in local aboriginal cosmology. The Moqoit were not initially consulted by the artists, and they mounted an international campaign in to have the project stopped.
On January 21, Documenta 13 issued a statement suspending their official request to have El Chaco imported for the exhibition pending a “full endorsement by the peoples of the land of Chaco, by the local community as a whole, and in careful consideration of the beliefs and principles of the traditional custodians today”.
Earlier this month, more than 40 prominent Argentine astronomers issued a letter urging “all those concerned to abandon the idea of moving the El Chaco” to Kassels, Germany for Documenta 13 which opens in June 2012. The scientists condemn the project as flawed by a “deeply colonialist attitude”.
Taking El Chaco to Germany is the brainchild of artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicholas Goldberg. Their planned installation is titled A Guide to Campo del Cielo, and is one of a series of artworks involving meteorite fragments. At 37,000 kg, El Chaco is the name of the largest fragment of a much larger meteor called Campo del Cieol. (The artists have a created a website about the Campo del Cieol meteorites here.)
According to American and Argentinian cyber-archeologists, the Campo del Cieol meteor is estimated to have weighed a massive 840,000 kg when it exploded over the Chaco region of Argentina, one of the largest ever to enter the earth’s atmosphere and whose explosion was 100-150 times bigger than the atomic explosion at Hiroshima. The crater field is scattered over 48,106 square km. Estimates vary, but the weight of fragments recovered (European excavations began as early as 1576, driven by an interest in the iron content of meteorites) is thought to be close to 100 tons.
In 2010, Faivovich and Goldberg mounted El Taco at the Portikus Gallery in Frankfurt. El Taco was the name given to a meteorite fragment weighing 1998 kg found in 1962, and later cut in half. One half had been housed in Germany and the other in Argentina. Their installation – El Taco, pictured at the left – was the first time the halves had been reunited.
It is against the law to remove meteorite fragments from the Chaco province. But late in 2011, the provincial legislature granted the artists an exemption that would allow the removal of El Chaco for the Documenta exhibition.
Because I don’t speak or read Spanish, I had difficulty finding statements from Moqoit representatives themselves. But according to the authors of the letter of protest (and other scholarship), the meteorite fragments and the region of their dispersal are part of Moqoit traditional territory and culture. The meteorite masses were known to indigenous locals long before European colonization. They were sometimes excavated for use in weaponry and tools and are still viewed as important links between the spiritual realm and earth, an aspect of Moqoit life explored in the film La Nacion Occulta (Director: Juan Carlos Martínez, 2010: 30 min.).
The meanings at play in the installations by artists Faivovich and Goldberg are, not surprisingly, difficult to pin down; but it isn’t the artwork itself that has given offense. Rather, it is the artists’ failure to consult the Moqoit. The meteorite El Chaco is considered culturally and spiritually an integral part of Moqoit identity, and it is the absence of consultation that critics say is in violation of art.75 of the Argentine constitution.
Worse, critics argue that moving El Chaco risks irreparable cultural destruction: “When a piece of the landscape this large is removed and pulled from its natural context,” write the astronomers in their letter of protest, “it risks the entire contextual relationship between people, land, and history. Insurance that promises a monetary replacement for a cultural treasure cannot in any way compensate for possible damages, since there is no way to establish a price; it is not merely a “thing” that can be repurchased.”
In an interview with an Argentine publication, Faivovich explained that the art project is intended to raise the profile of the region to help in the region’s preservation. “We share the old dream of making the region a World Heritage Site,” he explained. “But, it is necessary to be known. We hope that the gesture of taking the Chaco to Germany will help open the debate.”
The scientists opposed to the project, led by Dr. Alejandro Martín López, Researcher at CONICET, Coordinator of the Network of Centers for Research in Astronomy in Culture (RECIAC) and Founding member of the American Society for Astronomy in Culture (ACIS), are encouraging support for the region and interest in the meteorite to be handled using digital technologies — allowing access to El Chaco via the internet while leaving it in place where it has been for more than 4,000 years.