On the fifth floor of a nondescript hotel in central Santiago, the Paris-based team of Les Petits Français was busy readying “Pura Energia, Puro Chile,” the elaborate light show that illuminated the southern façade of Palacio La Moneda from the night of Thursday Sept .16 to Tuesday Sept. 21.Four members of the team hunched over open laptops, surrounded by notebooks, empty espresso cups, and several brimming ashtrays—the debris of stress and sleepless nights. When asked if things are busy, only one so much as looked up. She blinked, smiled and said simply, “Yes.” Judging by the case full of cigarette packs laying unopened by the door, that Monday night was only the beginning.
These exhausted artists constituted a tiny fraction of the people involved in getting this spectacle off the ground. In addition to the 22 designers, artists and producers who make up the Paris-based team Les Petit Français, the creation of the production required more than 100 Chileans. According to the Creative Director of Les Petits Français, Martin Artaud, working with Chileans has allowed the team to “produce a show that will feel local.”
Les Petits Français have mounted productions of a similar scale around the world, with Chile being particularly conducive to the type of work the team likes to do. Chile’s level of economic and technological development meant that finding the necessary equipment and teams trained to operate them was fairly easy. More important for Artaud, though, has been the consistent, honest and humble Chilean work ethic.
The results were stunning: the space designated for the audience was supposed to hold 40,000 people. 70,000 Santiaguinos came for opening night alone.
Though technical preparations on site only began on Sept. 5, the project began last November when the idea for the show was first developed. The spare, whitewashed facade of Palacio La Moneda, one of central Santiago’s most historic buildings, was chosen as the perfect canvas for the projected images.
La Moneda has been central to many of the key events in Chilean history. Built in 1805 as colonial Chile’s mint and used subsequently as a presidential residence, the building has served as the administrative seat of the presidency since 1952. During his time as President, Salvador Allende made the symbolic gesture of entering through a side entrance at Morandé 80 rather than the grand front entrance traditionally used by the head of state, asserting the President’s position as an ordinary citizen. It was at La Moneda that President Allende died during the 1973 military coup, an event that left the front of the building severely damaged. During the Pinochet regime the side entrance was officially closed and the room in which Allende died sealed with concrete. In 2003 President Ricardo Lagos Escobar reopened the gate at Morandé 80 for the 30th anniversary of the coup.
Les Petits Français aims primarily to entertain, which has meant taking an oblique approach to these troubled parts of Chile’s recent history. The goal, said Artaud, was not to educate but rather “to give people a feeling about their culture, about their heritage, about their country.” Artaud repeatedly used the Spanish word acercamiento to describe the aims of the show, implying a kind of intimate relationship with history. “We try to get people more interested in their own story,” he said.
The spectacle began with images from Chile’s pre-Columbian cultures and continued through the next several hundred years with a sepia-toned ship in the style of an 18th century etching sailing toward the craggy Chilean coast while still images of important historical figures were projected onto a fan of water, sprayed up from a reflecting pool. This explicitly historical portion brought the audience up to 1910.
For more recent history, Artaud’s team highlighted Chile’s cultural and ecological personality. “We are linking this ‘moving’ country in terms of geology with this evocation of the country’s past,” he says. In one section of the show this meant simulating an earthquake that left La Moneda cracked and broken, eerily resembling the aftermath of the military coup. Ivy then grew over the broken face of the building and bloomed in a vibrant display of flowers, an abstract representation of Chile’s astonishing rebirth in the last two decades.
Ultimately, the primary inspiration for the show came from working and interacting with everyday Chileans. “Despite all the things that have been happening since the country’s origins—with all these earthquakes and other things—they always, always have the strength to build, build, and build again.” Chileans always hear about their astonishing ability to overcome hardship, he said. “You can tell Chilean people that they are strong to rebuild their nation after it has just been destroyed and they will say no, that’s normal.”
Ending with a brilliant display of fireworks, the show at La Moneda paid homage to Chile’s extroardinary strength and the brightness of its future. “This show is…a celebration,” Artaud says: a celebration of 200 years spent transforming a narrow strip of land at the end of the world into one of the proudest, most resilient nations on earth.