The Hand of the Desert – Chile’s massive sculpture

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view,  Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by cruz_fr

Hand of the Desert / Mano Del Desierto

Mano del Desierto (aka the Hand of the Desert) is one Chile’s most talked-about art installations. It is a gigantic cement hand structure jutting 36 feet (around 11 meters) out of the arid sand of the Chilean Atacama Desert, one of the emptiest, most barren, and driest places on the face of the planet.

The sculpture is the brainchild of Mario Irarrázabal, a Chilean figurative sculptor who worked on it in 1992. The concept behind the giant hand reaching for the skies speaks to human loneliness, torment, and fragility. It pays homage to the human soul’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the face of suffering and injustices around the globe.

Read on to learn more about the Hand of the Desert by Mario Irarrázabal, including its meaning, what it’s made of, and top tours for those who want to see it in person.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY 2.0 by Dinael Photography

What is the Hand of the Desert?

As the name suggests, the Hand of the Desert (also popularly known as Mano Del Desierto) is an enormous artistic hand sculpture nestled smack dab in the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile. Due to its isolated locale, the statue has been graffitied, painted, and subjected to other forms of artistic vandalism, but it’s restored every other half year.

The artist doesn’t really mind the graffiti, though. On the website of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Chile1, where Irarrázabal was a professor, he stated:

These are not offensive scribbles, but people writing their name in an attempt to be a part of the work.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 by macha.cl

Located at an altitude of roughly 1,100 meters (335 feet) above sea level, the imposing sculpture is 11 meters (36 feet) tall, dominating almost the whole valley in the Atacama Desert. The concrete construction rises from the desert as if someone is trying to crawl out of the sand.

That is essentially the reason behind this land art installation; it was designed and installed in the middle to exude awe and expression of disbelief in visitors and passers-by (not that there are any in the heart of sweltering hot Atacama Desert).

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo:
CC BY 2.0 by Dinael Photography

About the Sculptor: Who Created the Mano Del Desierto?

The architect behind the Hand of the Desert is the Chilean artist and figurative sculptor Mario Irarrázabal. The highly acclaimed and celebrated artist was born in 1940 in Santiago, Chile, and attended the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1964. Between 1965 and 1967, he attended Università Gregoriana Pontificia in Rome, where he studied theology, before continuing his art studies in Germany under the sculptor Otto Waldemar.

The majority of Irarrázabal’s artworks use human subjects and figures in expressing human torture, sorrow, helplessness, loneliness, and injustice. The artist has, over the years, received various accolades and awards for his unmistakably distinct artistic expressions. Still, the Mano Del Desierto is hands down his most notable work. In his 2009 book Humano, Irarrázabal calls it his “favorite work2.”

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo:
Nicolas Valdes Ortega, CC BY-SA 4.0

The community of Antofagasta initiated the creation of the sculpture. The city, which is at the heart of the copper mining industry in Chile, is tucked around 47 miles (75km) northwest of the installation. It was commissioned and funded by a local NGO called Corporación PROA.

A trip to the Easter Islands inspired the artist to break with his previous style and start creating large-scale sculpture, which, in this case, is a re-encounter with the primitive and open world. Speaking about the reactions to his hand sculptures, he said3:

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.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile.
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY 2.0 by Dinael Photography

When was it built?

The completed sculpture was revealed to the public on 28 March 1992. It didn’t take long before the humongous hand became a lovely rest stop and popular attraction along the seemingly unending Pan-American Highway.

Where is it?

The statue is situated around 75 kilometers northwest of the city of Antofagasta along Route 5 of the world-renowned Pan-American Highway, flanked on either side by salt flats. You can easily get to Route 5 from either Route 28 or Route 26 from the city’s center. The sculpture is found between mile markers 1309 & 1310.

Hours: 24h

Coordinates: 24°09′30″S 70°09′24″O

What is the Hand of the Desert made of?

The Hand of the Desert comprises an iron base with a concrete structure. The overall design of the work is rough and tough to withstand the harsh temperatures of the desert. The concrete statue can be viewed from miles away.

Mario Irarrázabal - Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Patricio Soto Latrille

What is the meaning behind Mano Del Desierto?

In 1974, Pinochet’s political police came searching for Irarrázabal, who was renowned for his left-wing political views and activities. He got arrested and spent days in a secret location, always blindfolded, never fed, starting to have hallucinations after the third day.

Eventually, a Catholic monsignor and a human rights lawyer managed to release him. However, most of Pinochet’s enforcers were never brought to justice, adding to the fact that Irarrázabal is tormented by the past. He said4:

Every time a door banged I would get awful stomach aches, I was sure that they were coming to take me again.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY 2.0 by Dinael Photography

Irarrázabal has turned precisely these experiences into artworks. In the case of the Hand of the Desert, its imposing size is meant to serve as a symbol of human suffering, helplessness, and vulnerability in the face of adversity and injustice across the world.

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In another interview, the artist stated that he was pleased with the reactions and said the following5 about the role of the viewer:

One thing is what we artists want. And another is how people react. It is something that one cannot control. For me that hand was made by people. I am interested in how they see it, how they enjoy it. And the important thing is that one does not close its meaning, but that each one sees in it what they want.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile.
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY 2.0 by Dinael Photography

Hands are a common theme in the art world. In 2017, Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn installed his giant hands sculpture6 in Venice, Italy.

What you need to know before you visit

There’s a Right Hand!

You’d be forgiven for thinking the Mano del Desierto is the only hand in the desert, but you’d be wrong. That’s right; there’s a right hand to form a pair with the sculpture. The Fingers of Punta del Este is located about 1,200 miles (1930 km) east of the Hand of the Desert in Uruguay.

Punta Del Este (1982) is a sculpture featuring five human digits partially emerging from Brava Beach’s sand. Also created by Mario Irarrázabal, the work is found in Parada 1 in the touristy town of Punta del Este in Uruguay. It is also dubbed Hombre emergiendo a la vida or Los Dedos.

Mario Irarrázabal – La Mano de Punta del Este, 1982, concrete, plastic reinforced with steel, installation view, Playa Brava, Punta del Este, Uruguay
Mario Irarrázabal – La Mano de Punta del Este (The Hand of Punta del Este), 1982, concrete, plastic reinforced with steel, installation view, Playa Brava, Punta del Este, Uruguay, photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Sebástian Freire

In 1987, Mario Irarrázabal created the second version of his hands, entitled Mano de Madrid. In 1991, the outdoor sculpture park Juan Carlos I Park was opened in Madrid, Spain. Irarrázabal’s piece had been moved from Calle de Alcalá to the park and is now one of the best-known pieces in the park7 that tries to link art and nature by showing various sculptures.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano de Madrid, 1987, installation view, Juan Carlos I Park, Madrid, Spain
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano de Madrid, 1987, installation view, Juan Carlos I Park, Madrid, Spain, photo: CC BY-ND 2.0) by kozumel

You’re not allowed to scale it

Yes, we get it: the hand of the desert is so irresistible to climb. But don’t. It is not only a futile endeavor, but you’re also not allowed to climb the statue.

It’s found in one of the most deserted places on Earth

We’re not joking. The area around the sculpture is deserted, and you won’t spot anything for miles on end. Be sure to pack plenty of water and refreshments.

Atacama Desert, Chile
Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Heimlich el sudaca patagónico

It’s massive!

The fascinating thing about the statue is its impressive size. Standing at 36 feet tall, the size is sheer and quite a sight.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Claudia Schnugg/Ars Electronica

It’s free

Again, we are not kidding. The sculpture is right in the middle of the desert, with no fences, gates, or anything surrounding it. As long as you’re there, don’t expect to pay a penny for access to see the statue.

Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo:
Nicolas Valdes Ortega, CC BY-SA 4.0

Mano del Desierto Tours

Several tours are geared towards the Hand of the Desert or make a stop here. These include:

  1. Saltpeter Astronomical Tour — This is a 4 to 5-hour tour of the Atacama Desert and Andes Mountains
  2. San Pedro de Atacama — This is an all-inclusive hotel + tour package lasting three days
  3. Chile Astronomy Adventure — The 8-day tour takes you through many attractions of Chile, including the Atacama Desert, Elqui Valley, etc.
  4. Awasi Atacama Desert — The four-day tour explores Atacama Desert, Lasana Valley, Museo Gustavo Le Paige Museum, and much more.
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile
Mario Irarrázabal – Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert), 1992, concrete, iron frame, 11 metres (36 ft) tall, installation view, Atacama Desert, Chile, photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by VonFer Madness

Art in deserts

Footnotes

  1. http://artes.uchile.cl/
  2. https://issuu.com/fundacionpiedraviva/docs/libro_humano_comp_72_der
  3. https://www.uol.com.br/nossa/noticias/redacao/2021/09/06/mano-del-desierto-a-escultura-em-que-o-chile-quase-toca-o-ceu.htm
  4. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2013/09/life-under-pinochet-only-thing-we-could-hear-were-church-bells-and-people-screaming/
  5. https://amuraworld.com/topics/history-art-and-culture/articles/5041-una-postal-de-punta-del-este
  6. https://publicdelivery.org/lorenzo-quinn-hands-venice/
  7. https://patrimonioypaisaje.madrid.es/portales/monumenta/es/Monumentos-y-Edificios-Singulares/Monumentos/Dedos/?vgnextfmt=default&vgnextoid=8938091d1b9c4510091d1b9c45102e085a0aRCRD&vgnextchannel=8fac3cb702aa4510VgnVCM1000008a4a900aRCRD

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