It looks like the extremity of a giant man, buried by a monumental sandstorm. In the wasteland of Chile’s Atacama Desert, 75 km to the south of the city of Antofagasta, a strange and unexpected sight confronts the eye: four fingers, a thumb and part of a palm, emerging from the sand. Set against the azure sky, this surreal giant hand is of course not made of flesh but stone. Called "Mano de Desierto", or "Hand of the Desert", it is a piece of art that grabs those who see it like no other.
The work of Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal, the massive sculpture rises 36 feet in the air atop a base made of iron and cement. The piece was constructed at an elevation of 3608 feet above sea level on the virtually rainless plateau of the Atacama Desert – the driest in the world. Yet despite its isolated and arid location, vehicles regularly pull up and people pile out to take in the desert artwork – a must stop for those travelling along the Panamerican Highway since its inauguration in 1992.
After studying philosophy and art at the University of Notre Dame, IN, and theology at the Università Gregoriana Pontificia in Rome, artist Mario Irarrázabal trained under the German sculptor Otto Waldemar. He first exhibited his work in Chile in 1970, using the human figure to express themes such as injustice, loneliness, sorrow and torture. The exaggerated proportions like those evident in the "Hand of the Desert" are seen to emphasise human vulnerability and helplessness.
You might think such an exceptional sculpture was one of a kind, but hands are a recurring subject in Irarrázabal’s work. "Monumento al Ahogado", the "Monument to the Drowned", is an earlier and more well-known sculpture completed by the artist in 1982 consisting of five fingers partially submerged by sand on a beach in Punta del Este, a popular resort town in Uruguay. Similar sculptures were also created by Irarrázabal in Madrid in 1987 and Venice in 1995.
Yet despite these other works, the hand rising from the Atacama Desert retains its own mystique, perhaps because of the barren landscape on which it stands.
Graffiti sometimes besmirches the colossal structure so it must occasionally be cleaned, but otherwise "Mano de Desierto" is well-preserved and will likely stay that way for years to come. Who knows? This uncanny monument to the human form may well remain long after we are gone from this world.
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