Ingrid Wildi Merino: The long journey

Adriana Valdés

In order to properly present Ingrid Wildi’s work in Chile a bit of personal history is in order. Wildi first appeared on our cultural horizon at the Venice Biennale in 2005, when her work was featured at the Swiss Pavilion. For this reason, it may come as a surprise that she was born in 1963 in Chile and lived there until the age of eighteen, and that she had to work quite hard to make a living, but ultimately prevailed over her circumstances and went on to study art, to receive grants, prizes and distinctions. Slowly but surely, she learned, through the medium of video, how to produce a body of work that was “a way of negotiating my relationship to the world,” as she herself put it in 2006.

There are several fascinating, painfully contemporary qualities about Wildi’s relationship to the world around her—even in the most intimate sense, that of language itself. As she was writing her thesis in Zurich, for example, she was living through the fractured experience of exile, immersed in a multilingual milieu that denied her the security of a mother tongue, with the added burden of having to write in a language that she had not fully mastered. This was how video, little by little, became her preferred method for negotiating those difficulties and working with them. The video production process allows her to preserve the spoken word of the people she interviews, so that she can then employ their own images and words to construct a narrative. Moreover, as the artist herself has explained, the movement of the images, coupled with the temporal succession of the video (in both sight and sound) “dialecticize” the narration, rendering each moment somewhat ambiguous and slippery, given the multiple relationships that it creates with what is shown and said at other points along the way.

This is how the artist creates spaces that are unresolved, always transitional and open to interpretations that may change with time and space. The latter is precisely what most draws my attention at this moment. When one sees Wildi’s work in Chile, something rather disturbing happens, a kind of diplopia, a double vision: what we see is a video made in Switzerland, primarily for a European public. But we are seeing it in Chile, and can't help viewing it differently, while still keeping in mind its original public, and feeling the tension between the two ways of seeing. In ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M? (Does Mrs. Eliana M. live here?), for example, we see landscapes from the North of Chile and domestic interiors in Santiago. We see them both as known quantities and as something exotic for other viewers, and we can't help wondering what it is that "they" see—what signs, what values. How, we ask, do they judge from their radically ‘other’ point of view? What might be familiar turns into something strange. The migrant carries his own contaminated baggage along with him (FAM, 2007). And this baggage alters and disturbs the place that we thought we knew.

Wildi’s use of video as an artistic medium fits both the circumstances of her personal history and the themes of her work. One might even suggest a connection between the spoken word as recovered in the video and the semi-aphasia of the migrant; and between the various moments that Wildi's editing juxtaposes against one another, creating a fictitious continuity, and the spatial and cultural discontinuity of the migration experience. These are the elements that the artist negotiates with, both in her creative work and in her relationship to the world around her. Art, to her, is precisely that negotiation, “the ability to transmit something of life and the ability to offer another form of communication with others.” This essay will attempt to study the way in which the artist does this, through a body of work that has earned her a place among a number of renowned contemporary artists.

Word and Montage

According to Stefan Banz, Ingrid Wildi’s mother tongue was left behind in Chile, along with her mother. This suggests yet another possible set of questions about ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M?. Is finding one's mother equivalent to finding one’s mother tongue? What do I find when I find my mother? And when I do find my mother, is what I am looking for actually there?

For the moment, let us think about a flawed relationship with the mother tongue, which leads the artist to focus on speech, on the spoken word, precisely because she “is aware of what it means not only to have no language but also to be a stranger among the languages in which one lives.” (Banz) Because of this, video is her chosen form of expression, her own form of language. In it, what is crucial is not her own voice but the voices of others: the video will offer a close-up of their speech. The camera captures verbal histories; the artist edits them. Fragmented spoken language is assembled during the editing process. The effects achieved by this procedure are different in each piece.

One of the artist’s briefest and best works, Si c’est elle, is a singular example of the effects created by the montage of oral histories, a fundamental element of the artist’s poetics. Three men speak about a woman in front of the camera. At one point, the tail end of a question can be heard from off-screen, revealing the manner in which these stories have been generated. The device is terse, simple, refined, creating an effect of “formal power and sheer beauty” (Ursprung). By cutting and pasting, the artist manages to articulate a space and a time that depicts the space and time of each of the three stories—and yet at the same time it is also another story, one of ever-changing relationships, one that reflects the speculations of a viewer who may make a number of different assumptions and must correct them along the way as the piece progresses. The first question that comes to mind is this: are all three men talking about the same woman? What kind of relationship did they have with this woman, who still has the power to stir the emotions of those that speak about her? And as the viewer hears those recorded words, what qualities does the woman’s ghostly presence begin to acquire? The deep impact of this piece is made possible by the artist’s subtle treatment of that ghostly presence, the presence of three women who are one in the imaginary space of the film, three shadows that are the same but also different. The woman –the women— is reconstructed bit by bit by the emotional, nostalgic words of those who have very clearly loved her. As the minutes tick by, what was ghostly starts to get closer to reality, but by this point it is too late: the piece has already led the viewer to feel that all these women are one and the same, for reality has been shaken to its core by its encounter with the world of ghosts. The three ghosts are in fact one: the ghost of the mother. The three absent women come from different cultures and origins but they all share the ghostly quality of memory, the imaginary construction that emerges through the words spoken by their sons.

This brings us back to the beginning: in this video, as in others by Ingrid Wildi, most especially ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M.?, the artist's mise-en scène involves other people’s voices, which, once edited, evoke a presence of something that is absent. Both videos revolve around a presence, that of the mother, who sends out mixed, partial and frustrating messages. Just like the mother tongue, perhaps. The migrant’s mother tongue. Something happens to the migrant's mother tongue, to her original language; it does not emerge unscathed. While in exile, the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton wrote a two-verse poem that expresses something similar: Por expatriado yo / tu eres ex-patria (Because I am an expatriate / you are an ex-country). Just like the migrant's former country, the mother tongue has become an ex-language.

The Long Journey

Someone once described ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M.? as a kind of road movie—that classic movie genre which encompasses films from Easy Rider (1969) to David Lynch’s A Straight Story (1999), and European variations such as Stanno tutti bene (1990). In this genre, the voyage through a particular space and landscape is also a “spiritual journey,” a quest, a possibility for discoveries or transformation. The theme of this video by Ingrid Wildi fits this description, for it is, quite literally, the artist’s search for her mother, who abandoned her family and lost contact with the rest of her relatives when the artist was a small child. As Wildi starts making the film, her mother's whereabouts are unknown.

By connecting this video with Si c’est elle, we may surmise that Aquí vive's interpretation will go beyond the literal. It is indeed a journey, but one that is interrupted at various points along the way—as I write this, in fact, it suddenly occurs to me that “editing" is all about “interrupting” and then constructing a fictitious sequence. It is through the artist’s mise-en-scène and editing, rather than through her very limited presence in the final filmed piece, that we may appreciate her intentions. There is no suspense in the conventional sense, for there is no doubt as to the literal result of the journey. What remains in doubt, in suspense, is everything else: What is at stake in this journey? What is the meaning of what we are hearing and seeing? What are memories? How are memories crafted in the first place? How and why are people able to forget? Why are certain people excluded from memory? In what way do human groupings deal with absence, with death? What is the role of the occult, the unusual, the superstitious -and ultimately, of fiction also?

One especially fascinating aspect of Ingrid Wildi’s work is its commitment to personal history, to things that are concrete and real, corporeal –and in this sense speech is most certainly ‘corporeal’. The broad themes mentioned in the previous paragraph are presented only through the narratives of the people she films. She seeks them out not because they are “stars” or “experts” but because they are close to her (her grandmother, her uncle, her female cousins, the relative who is an anesthesiologist, the relative interested in esoteric matters). As if the tangled relationships in her immediate family held the key to the understanding of a micro-story that, in turn, might be able to shed light on another, more far-reaching one. Ingrid Wildi’s practices do not lend themselves to conventional wisdom. Hesitation is the rule, and as she juxtaposes one episode against another, all are brought into question, and the danger zone, the borderline between different worlds, reveals itself as the singular habitat of her own story-telling, crafted in video by means of other people's narratives.

Another strong piece in Wildi’s oeuvre is Portrait oblique. The “slanted portrait” of an experience, that of being uprooted, appears through the speech of her own brother, suffering from depression. Once again, what makes this work fascinating is the way the artist works with what is so near, yet manages to create, one way or another, a measure of distance. The stories are personal, but it is not only about them; the works don't limit themselves to them. While showing something very specific and particular, they are targeting experiences common to many, such as migration and exile. These, formerly identified with only certain situations, have become widespread in “our age of vast population transfers, of refugees, exiles, expatriates, and immigrants” and of the “diasporic, wandering, unresolved, cosmopolitan consciousness of someone who is both inside and outside his or her community” (Said), words that come to mind in relation to Ingrid Wildi’s work.

There is a critical-political dimension to being both inside and outside of one's own community. As early as 1928, Walter Benjamin was announcing the demise of criticism when he defined it as a matter of correct distancing. Criticism, he said, "was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society", and criticism is made impossible. Yet recent circumstances, namely the widespread experience of being uprooted, among others, may modify this view somewhat. Thanks to works by Wildi and other artists, people have begun to acknowledge that such an experience is indeed capable of producing something like "distancing". For example, Ursprung holds that “today, cultural difference is one of the few things that make critical distance possible”: this might be the political dimension implicit in cultural difference.

I think this is where I was heading earlier on when I mentioned "diplopia", the troubling "double vision" of Chile found in ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M.? In Chile, the viewer observing the piece is asked to look at something he knows very well, perhaps too well; but it is filtered by a gaze that is distanced, alien, critical. A strangeness is added to the everyday perception of things; it loses its natural feeling, it is in a sense dislocated, and is perceived as foreign. Cristián Warnken, commenting upon a recent work by Raul Ruiz, wrote about “the radical strangeness that turns us into extra-terrestrials, foreigners…and shows us things that are both extremely Chilean but also extremely strange (…) This is because Chile is a strange place and we don’t realize it.” Just like in Ruiz’s “La Recta Provincia”, though on another level, the piece ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M.? reveals Chile to be “a fragile, cunning land, filled with fantasy,” and presents us with a collection of “extremely familiar characters, expressions, and turns of phrase from the heart of Chile, though everything is depicted from an extremely foreign perspective,” a kind of strangeness related to critical distance.

Migration and Memory

Ingrid Wildi stresses the relationship between her works and fiction. While her material is gathered like that of a documentary, her editing work focuses on the fissures, contradictions and proximities in the stories. The editing process both reveals them as evident and also, very subtly, creates them. “For me, reality contains a component of fiction, the fiction is already there,” the artist stated in a 2003 interview. She says she works with the “subconscious" of the documentary as a genre, and this might be understood as working with its lapsus and its dreams; with its symptoms, the things that interrupt its “normal” flow and raise questions about its ability to represent anything.

In this area, Wildi’s work has rather surprising connections with incisive and scholarly observations on how history gets constructed. “The object of the historical disciplines is not, strictly speaking, the past,” says Georges Didi-Huberman, “because what the historian practices is not exactly a science (…) To understand something (…) one needs a memory—in other words, an impure organization, a non-historical montage of time (…) To understand something one needs a poetics, that is, an impure organization, a non-scientific montage of knowledge.”

Ingrid Wildi’s videos, perhaps unconsciously, seem to embody these remarks about the historian’s work. They imply an understanding of the relationship between memory and montage, the difficulties of pinpointing the reality of the past, and the parallels to be drawn between video work and the construction of memories. “The video embodies physically the thematics in which I am interested. The fact that there isn't just one reality to connect to, but various realities. And the fragmentation of meaning is present in the mechanism of montage inherent to my work,” she said in a 2003 interview. Her videos show multiple voices and multiple oral histories (unlike the traditional documentary, with its off-screen voice in neutral Spanish mimicking that of the omniscient narrator and offering an illusion of “scientific” coherence). Wildi’s voices, moreover, all pertain to private, intimate settings and do not speak about "history", but rather about a number of small and occasionally contradictory personal stories, often more symptomatic than factual, with strong fictional components. In Quelquepart 1, a video in which movie house operators speak, the artist draws attention to the unreal and ghostly quality that the very medium of video suggests: film actors are eternal revenants who, after death, continue to offer a structure for the dreams, plans and fantasies of their viewers.

“For those who have had to leave their own country, their own history depends on their spoken word,” says Ursprung, who also notes that when it is repeated over and over again, history "becomes indistinguishable from fiction.” For the artist, “the interview is an instrument for traveling across historical space, and also for representing its partially fictitious nature,” allowing the artist to “question reality itself.” She questions reality, in fact, and on the other hand she questions the ghosts that inhabit both reality itself and the oral versions of reality, and which appear in their lapses, symptoms and contradictions. These ghosts are also part of what "reality" becomes through the fictional montage of memory.

“Those who have had to leave their own country", refugees and the migrants, are the modern-day version of the wretched of the earth. Ingrid Wildi’s most recent video, Los invisibles (The invisible ones), which is being shown for the first time, features the bodies of illegal workers; their faces cannot be shown, for they would be exposed. They are faceless but present, and are speaking: their voice, which in a foreign country is always an identifying mark that invites denigration and dashes hopes of belonging, is also the instrument of their memory, of their fantasy, of their vindication…and a sign of a distance, the possibility of social criticism. Just by appearing (when usually they remain unseen) they are revealing fissures and blind spots in the established order of things.

In a 2003 interview the artist stated that she sees “a connection between alternative realities, fragmented narratives, madness, and the condition of the immigrant”. This connection is stressed particularly in Los invisibles and Portrait oblique. And with this in mind we can revisit ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M.? Being different, being discriminated against, is like being foreign. It entails separation from the group (the family group, in her mother's case), and being considered of unsound mind, for claiming to see the future. The mother who has distanced herself is a seer, a clairvoyant; the daughter, who has become a foreigner, is also in some ways a seer, a woman working with a video camera. Both weave tales and unite fragments (Wagner), both women “see” alternative realities, and both have crossed the barrier of belonging—to a family, a class, a country. This turns them into foreigners, strangers; into people with a special intuition for the ‘other side’ of life, whose very existence shakes the foundations of conventional notions of identity, and redefines current notions of what it means to be human, a process in which “the vision of the other, the artist, like that of the migrant, explodes into our world” (FAM, 2007). Artist and migrant are perhaps the two words that best summarize the existence of Ingrid Wildi.

Video and Essay

The artist has described her own work as “probably in the field of the video-essay” (2003 interview). This concept, which emerged in Switzerland in the late 1980s, primarily refers to an art form that attempts to reconcile the elements of the documentary with those of art films. Years later, Wildi reiterated this and expanded upon it: “Unlike the objective focus of a documentary, the goal of which is to offer a direct mirror of the outside world, my point of view is subjective (…) my videos play with the documentary format, making it more complex (…) the editing process allows me to create a fictional dimension, which in turn allows me to question reality itself. For this reason, my work lies between the documentary and video art, belongs more in the category of video essay, and always attempts to escape established genres.” (Wildi, 2006).

This concept invites analogies with the literary essay: in the words of Martín Cerda, this is a daring genre. The essayist finds himself in a position “analogous to that of the sailor who, after crossing through charted terrain, suddenly finds himself off the map, so to speak, confronting the unexpected and as such, without any information except that which he obtains, either through skill or inspiration, each new day of sailing.” Because of this, says Adorno, the essayist operates through trial and error, "a way of orienting oneself toward the unknown, as opposed to the familiar.” With her videos, Ingrid Wildi has discovered an intelligent method for “negotiating” her own problematic relationship with the world, as she herself has said, but she has also identified an experience of thought, a method for finding her way through the unknown and for exploring things that have yet to be discovered. Her work, as such, reaches “a place of impure, dangerous, chance-filled encounters” of “disregarded boundaries and dangerous possibilities” (FAM, 2007). These are the kinds of places that the best of today’s contemporary art explores. I would like to think, as well, that Ingrid Wildi’s visual and linguistic reflections are not aimed only at the art world. They deserve to be considered when thinking in more general terms of realities, such as migration, that are changing the shape of culture in our modern world.


1) In 2003, Wildi's video Si c’est elle was exhibited at the Salvador Allende Solidarity Museum, at an exhibit organized by Hoffmann’s House.

2) Ingrid Wildi’s impressive CV includes various important solo exhibitions, such as De palabra en palabra (From word to word), held in Geneva in 2004, as well as participation in group shows with significant figures in the world of contemporary visual arts: Shadows Collide with People (Swiss Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2005), Efecto Downey (The Downey Effect) Buenos Aires 2006, Mankind, Story of a Wound (Leuven, Belgium, 2006), L’oeil-écran ou la nouvelle image (Luxembourg, 2007).

3) Raul Ruiz, “La recta provincia”, a production for TVN, first aired in 2007.

4) “The concepts of ‘film-essay’ or ‘video-essay’ have been used since the late 1980s to define the work of artists such as Anri Sala, Ursula Biemann, Harun Farocki, Hito Steyerl and others.” (Ursprung). Cf. Nora M. Alter, “Memory Essays,” in Ursula Biemann (ed.), Stuff It – The Video Essay in the Digital Age, Edition Boldemeer, Zurich, Springer, Vienna, 2003, p. 12-23.

Benjamin, Walter. One Way Street, 1928.

Benz, Stefan. “Shadows Collide with People,” in Shadows Collide with People, catalog of the exhibition held at the Swiss Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale, 2005. Zurich: Editions Fink, 2005 (translated from the German).

Cerda, Martín. La palabra quebrada-ensayo sobre el ensayo (The broken word-an essay about the essay). Valparaíso: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso, 1982.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. Ante el tiempo. Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo Editora, 2006.

García-Antón, Katya, and Ingrid Wildi, “The Mirror Has No Memory,” 2003 interview published in De palabra en palabra, Video Essays . Aarau-Geneva: Editions Fink, 2004.

Miglietti, Francesca Alfano (FAM). Manuale delle passioni-Incontri, scontri e tensioni di arte contemporanea. Milan: Skira, 2007.

Extreme Bodies: The Use and Abuse of the Body in Art. Milan: Skira, 2003.

Said, Edward. Freud and the Non-European, Introduction by Christopher Bollas, response by Jacqueline Rose, London-New York: Verso Books, 2003.

Ursprung, Philip. “Ours is a time of historical loss: The Video Essays of Ingrid Wildi” in Shadows Collide with People, catalog of the exhibition held at the Swiss Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale, 2005. Zurich: Editions Fink, 2005 (translated from the German)

Wagner, Valeria. “Transmettre l’avenir: autour de l’essay-video de Ingrid Wildi ¿Aquí vive la señora Eliana M.? in Intermédialités No. 5, Spring 2005. Montréal: Centre de Recherche sur l’Intermédialité, University of Montréal.

Warnken, Cristián. “La Recta TV”, El Mercurio, Santiago, Chile, 23 August 2007.

Wildi, Ingrid, Presentation to the Haute École d’Art et Design, Geneva, 21 December 2006.