On the banks of the Panamericana, in the Desert of the Atacama, in northern Chile, an immense hand beckons to those passing the 1,300 kilometer of the iconic road that cuts across the continent.
It could be a wave like “Return Always”, a call for help or even a proposal for a political reflection on the country. But this is another work by an artist who lives “thinking and dreaming”, as he defines himself.
Created by the Chilean Mario Irarrázabal, the ‘Mano del Desierto’ (‘Hand of the Desert’, in Portuguese) is a 12-meter-tall sculpture, inaugurated nearly two decades ago, 75 kilometers from Antofagasta.
In his book-catalogue ‘Human’, where you can see the assembly of this work of iron mesh on a steel structure covered with stucco, the sculptor from Santiago confesses:
It is perhaps my favorite work.”
Inspired by a trip to Easter Island, a milestone for the break with his previous work style, the ‘Mano del Desierto’, which represents a left hand, is a re-encounter with the primitive and open-air world.
“At first, they thought that my hands were part of a critical work, but no. I was working with a symbol related to nature, with outdoor space, with the sun and the contribution of man”, explains in the documentary ‘Human ‘.
Hand in hand with the audience?
Irarrázabal is known for his reticence towards museums, as he prefers that his works “be freely appreciated”, as he once declared in an interview.
The artist is also the author of ‘Mano de Punta del Este’ (1982), made in just five days and buried in the sands of Praia Brava, one of the most famous attractions of this resort in the extreme south of Uruguay. Five years later, he would also sign the ‘Mano de Madrid’, currently in the Juan Carlos I park, in the Spanish capital.
Perhaps it is because of this reservation to the confinement of art that the sculptor declared that he even considered placing a ladder in the ‘Mano del Desierto’ so that visitors could go up to scratch it, since it is not uncommon to see the work with “interventions” made by visitors.
To the website of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Chile, Irarrázabal declared:
These are not offensive scribbles, but people writing their name in an attempt to be part of the work.”
The “contribution” of the public is perhaps not the greatest difficulty in maintaining the work, which usually undergoes restoration twice a year.
At 1,100 meters above sea level, the “hand” of Irarrázabal is constantly exposed to the variation of extreme temperatures, day and night, and requires permanent maintenance by the Corporación Pro Antofagasta (PROA).
Chile is considered the world capital of astronomy. The favorable conditions for astronomical observation and the more than 300 days of clear skies per year make astrotourism a huge attraction for those visiting the country.
The ‘Mano del Desierto’ seems to want to touch the immense carpet of stars that line the Chilean northern sky. The work is considered one of the “Starlight” destinations by the Starlight Foundation, which is responsible for the Starlight Photographic Marathon, an award for astronomical records in places with a unique look and no light pollution.
Chile also boasts astronomical centers open to visitors in places like La Serena, San Pedro de Atacama and Antofagasta. The most relevant address on an international scale is called ALMA, in Santiago.
While studying philosophy in Indiana, United States, Mario Irarrázabal participated in a sculpture workshop led by Waldemar Otto, a Polish artist who would become one of the main references for the Chilean and with whom he would do an artistic residency in Berlin, between 1967 and 1968.
Like his work that emerges alone in the desert, Irarrázabal also likes to be alone: ”I can be silent, it’s a slow and reflective work”.
I seek the magical dimension of reality, not the esoteric one.”