Carlos del Carmen
Chile -
June 20, 2023

Virtual portraits of a naked mind

In projects such as Ejercicios Para el Fin del Mundo, 10 Pasos para Mantener la Salud Mental and Fibriosíntesis Múltiple Degenerativa, Carlos del Carmen approaches the subject of mental disorders by skillfully intertwining fiction and reality. The Chilean artist draws from the visual culture of social networks, his experience with the disease, and intense photography sessions with strangers through the web.

By Alonso Almenara

Achieving absolute intimacy with another person through a webcam is a delicate exercise: long-distance lovers know this all too well. Chilean visual artist Carlos del Carmen discovered this during the pandemic while working on the project10 Pasos para Mantener la Salud Mental, in which he experimented with asking strangers for images through an instructive. Inspired by the Fluxus movement and Viennese actionism, one might think, since the work consists of a record of actions triggered by a set of indications from the artist. But no. Carlos is inspired by self-help publications on mental health and psychological tests from fashion magazines. His instructions are a parody version of these slightly dangerous discourses that have become popular since confinement left us locked indoors, forever glued to the screen.

There is a sincere undercurrent to all this. Carlos acknowledges that his work is motivated, in part, by the experience of living with mental illness. But his works approach this theme – and others linked to it, such as loneliness and anonymity – with biting irony. For example, Fibriosíntesis Múltiple Degenerativa (Multiple Degenerative Fibrosynthesis) takes the form of a medical treatise describing an invented illness. In addition to photographs downloaded from the Internet, Carlos introduces his engravings into the publication, which he passes off as drawings of patients in psychiatric hospitals. 

In these projects, he usually combines texts, archival material, videos, screenshots, and cell phone photos: he is an exponent of a dirty or low-fi aesthetic in which the pixel and the low-resolution image are as important as the human presence. 

“I work with what photographers would call ugly or erroneous images, junk images,” says the artist born in the city of Concepción. He does not consider himself part of the guild. But the images he accumulates manage to capture something that portraitists aspire to: people give him their image and the possibility of observing their traumas and insecurities, their culture and ways of life. “It is an act of intense mutual observation,” he proposes.


Ejercicios para el fin del mundo

I want to discuss your most recent project, 10 Pasos para Mantener la Salud Mental

 It is a work I did during the pandemic, and it was motivated by the incredible amount of ads and information that appears today on social networks about mental health: I am referring mainly to self-help messages, often of new age style, published by companies to get more likes and more money online. This situation bothered me because mental health is being talked about very lightly. It is believed that it is enough to buy a couple of candles or incense, recite a mantra, and that’s it. You get mental wellness as if it were a spell. 

 The work is based on this boredom but is done in a slightly sarcastic spirit. It is instructive that consists of ten steps that must be fulfilled. To compile this text, I googled “how to maintain mental health,” which led me to many self-help pages and psychological tests from fashion magazines. I cross-referenced one of these tests from Vogue magazine with results from other websites and developed an instructive model that condenses the nonsense you read online.

10 pasos para mantener la salud mental
10 pasos para mantener la salud mental

As for the images of the project, I did not create any. I generated stimuli for different people to send me their responses, such as photographs or videos: a cell phone recording, a screenshot, or stock photos. 


How did you establish contact with these people?

I always work with many people, so I don’t have much trouble inviting people. In this case, most of them were people I had never seen before. For example, some of the images I sent you are the result of sessions with a Chilean performer. We had effortless meetings, I would send them the instructions, and we would coordinate by Whatsapp. Sometimes people asked me to guide them in real-time, although very few needed it. The ten steps are clear and are those typical cliché phrases about mental health that one finds on the Internet, such as: “eat well,” “go to bed early,” “bathe every day,” etc. Part of the work has to do with recognizing that none of that assures mental health, we are all human, and we are much more complex than that.

10 pasos para mantener la salud mental

“Similarly, I observe these people and configure the project from their images; they also observe me in my intimacy. And that intimacy has nothing to do with the fact of being naked. I’m not interested in the hypersexualization of nudity, but in reaching a place where people enter a greater intimacy, beyond nudity.”

Ejercicios para el fin del mundo

The fact of working with non-professional photographers gives your proposal a certain punk or low-fi aesthetic. Is that something you actively seek?

 I wanted this work’s erroneous, low-quality, and perhaps even naive photos. I indeed feel a resistance to the world of images. My background is in graphic design: you learn to manage the picture very well so that everything is orderly and in super high resolution. But then I realized the discarded or “bad” images were much more enjoyable. That’s why I like to work with formats like webcams. 

Another project I developed during the pandemic,  Ejercicios para el Fin del Mundo, consists of photographs of my computer screen. Although I photograph people on the other side of the screen, the protagonist here is the pixel, or a tangle of pixels. I never sought that situation others would describe as “good photography.” In Chile, a figure like Sergio Larraín, a staunch defender of the “decisive instant,” when you photograph and everything conspires to make the image perfect: the light, the situation, the person. This Frenchified thinking burdens me, to tell you the truth. I understand that it works for others, and I respect that, but I like images that are not so pleasant that have a certain dirtiness.

Ejercicios para el fin del mundo

Where does this impulse come from?

When I studied photography, I had a typical 35 mm SLR that I used to learn. But at the same time, I started to look for old cameras that I had at home, and with those automatic cameras with a very crude flash, I began to take pictures. Those photos seemed much more interesting than the ones I took with my “official” camera. From there, I began to realize that I had an obsession. I was interested that there was something a little hidden in the images, like a fear that distanced the public instead of bringing them closer or that caused them strangeness. I wanted to explain why this image is here instead of a “good” picture. And to this day, some people see my work and tell me: “Hey, all your photos are pixelated” (laughs). But I’m fine with that.

Ejercicios para el fin del mundo

The nude is prominent in your production. Is it part of a provocative strategy? 

I will tell you that I have been invited many times to erotic art spaces, but I feel that it is not my thing. I think there is a desexualization of the body in what I do. People see a lot of sex in these images, but there is no sex anywhere. There are just naked people. In one of my projects called Soportar la Existencia, for example, there’s a lot of nudity, but it’s sick people. It’s a project about mental illness and physical illness: they are images of very battered bodies.

Ejercicios para el fin del mundo

They are images that capture moments of extreme vulnerability. How do you establish such a delicate bond with these people?

I don’t know who said that when someone sees you, it’s because you’re alive: it’s like proving that you exist. These projects are about observing the other. In the same way, I observe these people and configure the project from their images. They also observe me in my intimacy. And that intimacy has nothing to do with the fact of being naked. I’m not interested in the hypersexualization of the nude but in reaching a place where people enter a greater intimacy beyond the nude. The models I work with sometimes I’ve never seen them again because everything is online. But, at least in some projects, the connection is profound. I feel it’s like when you fall in love very quickly and then forget about it. It’s not romantic love but a form of attraction, at least an interest to feel so comfortable with that person.

In the sessions, some people fell asleep or ended up telling me things about their lives that they never really talked about. A force in this seeks not to forget the human being, almost like a rescue. And it is a standard agreement, like saying: “You don’t forget me, and I won’t forget you.” This interaction gives rise to images that could not be so easily taken out in other situations.

Fibriosíntesis múltiple degenerativa

Finally, let’s talk about the book Fibriosíntesis Múltiple Degenerativa. How did this project come about?


It is a publication that is set up like a medical book: it deals with the symptoms of the disease, the posology, and the journals. But the exciting thing, I think, is that the condition does not exist. It is a fiction. The book has the attraction that, in the beginning, everything seems very real or credible. Still, you begin to realize that there are specific dysfunctions in the publication, both at the level of text and image.

Fibriosíntesis múltiple degenerativa
Fibriosíntesis múltiple degenerativa

I have a diagnosed psychiatric illness. It was a complex and confusing experience, and this book is the answer. Everyone was telling me how I should behave and what I should do to get my life on track and survive. I did this book to somehow have a voice in that story. I used essential resources: super cheap paper, a super simple printer, typography, and images downloaded from the internet. It was the game of making a formal publication with pure scraps.

Maybe the book had been like a kind of vomit of what I was going through, but it was pretty clean. That’s what art does: order a particular chaos to throw a work, or a space of expression, into the world.