The Geometry of Conscience was a finalist for the 2nd International Award for Public Art.

Artist Alfredo Jaar created a radically different type of memorial for the victims of the 17-year Pinochet military dictatorship.

Housed on the grounds of Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, the memorial is situated underground. Access to the memorial is restricted to only ten people at a time, and viewing the piece takes approximately three minutes. Visitors descend by 33 steps into absolute darkness. After a full minute in the dark, 500 silhouettes—each representing many more victims of the regime—slowly brighten on one wall, reflected infinitely in two facing, mirrored side-walls. After the lights reach their full intensity, they snap off, plunging the viewers into darkness, with an intense afterimage left on their retinas.

The legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, which ended only 24 years ago, is still fresh in the lives of Chileans today. Thousands of citizens were murdered by his government, and tens of thousands were tortured or imprisoned for political reasons.

It is fitting, then, that half of the 500 silhouettes depicted in Jaar’s memorial represent living Chileans; the other half depict the “disappeared.” As a result, the work is “a memorial not for victims only but rather for the 17 million Chileans who are alive today and trying to retrace their common history,” according to Capucine Gros, Jaar’s studio manager.

In the universe of public memorials, The Geometry of Conscience stands out. Most memorials are static places of contemplation and memory. As such, they insert a gap between the past that is remembered and the living present. This distance between those who mourn and those for whom they mourn is shortened in Jaar’s piece. In part this is because of the mixture of silhouettes used for the memorial, and in part it’s because of the piece’s unique physicality.

Not only is the piece profoundly unsettling as it imposes a relative isolation and deprives the viewers of light; it also builds physicality into a central role of the experience. “The after-image effect imprints their retinas with a million dots of light and physically embeds the silhouettes into the audience’s visual memory,” says Gros. “The work’s success, therefore, relies on both the conceptual understanding of the work (the viewer’s intellect and feelings) and the audience’s inevitable physiological reception of it (the viewer’s body).”

The Geometry of Conscience was completed in 2010. Jaar, a Chilean, is highly acclaimed for his work in film, photography, and public interventions, which frequently include light boxes. He represented Chile in the 55th Venice Biennale.