Recovered Memory

An Argentine Artist Resurrects the Disappeared

Artist Marcelo Brodsky stood exulting over the news photo of an ashen Augusto Pinochet on his way to a London court. Gleeful and mocking, the artist began to quote the fallen dictator's proud declaration to the judge: "I am Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. I was Commander in Chief of the Army, Captain General of Chile, president of the Republic...." Brodsky is Argentine, but points out that "all the repression was interconnected in southern Latin America in the '70s." Exacting some justice from Pinochet would bring a certain closure, but no one knows better than Brodsky that it won't heal the wounds.

After all, members of the Argentine junta went to prison in the '80s. But only now, said Brodsky, are Argentine artists beginning to deal with the trauma inflicted on his generation. Hanging on the wall in the next room at SABA Gallery were photos of Brodsky's brother, Fernando, and his best friend, Martin Bercovich—both of them among the 30,000 "disappeared" civilians during the so-called Dirty War waged by the Argentine military from 1976 to 1983. Brodsky's show, Buena memoria (Good Memory), on view at SABA until the end of January, is an attempt to begin processing his own and his country's tragedy.

The focus of Brodsky's exhibit is his eighth-grade class photo, taken in 1967. After enlarging it to nearly six feet in length, he inscribed his own 13-year-old image and that of each of his 31 classmates with news of what came later. For example, "Claudio was killed in a shooting with the military." Martin was "disappeared." Another became a political prisoner. A couple are marked simply vive (alive). Many others, including the artist himself, ended up in exile from Lima to Helsinki to Israel.

Artist Marcelo Brodsky (left) and his best friend, Martin Bercovich, in their 1967 class photo. Bercovich disappeared in 1976.
Artist Marcelo Brodsky (left) and his best friend, Martin Bercovich, in their 1967 class photo. Bercovich disappeared in 1976.

Brodsky lived for 13 years in Barcelona and Madrid. When he finally returned to Argentina, he said, "I felt the need to work on my identity." He decided to convene a 25-year reunion of his old high school class from the prestigious Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. (In Argentina, eighth grade is the first year of high school.) "All these dictatorships—what they look for is cutting the relationships between people. Cutting. Cutting. Cutting. So if you crossed paths with any friends from school during those years, you wouldn't even say hello—for fear." Life under the junta was about getting through each day without showing up on anyone's radar screen, he explained. And you just couldn't be sure where people stood politically, unless they were your closest friends.

Classmates still in Argentina got together three or four times, and each posed for Brodsky in front of the old eighth-grade picture. He photographed some of those still in exile holding small copies of that picture. Also on view at SABA is the videotape of an event organized at the school in 1996 by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who protested so heroically throughout the dictatorship for the return of their disappeared children. What the Mothers wanted to do, said Brodsky, was simply to "count how many students of the school had been disappeared. We didn't know how many they were and who they were. Because of fear—it took us 20 years to get together and say, 'How many?"' On tape, the mothers do what has by now become a familiar and painful ritual, reading names of missing sons and daughters as they hold up their photos and call "presente." They had expected to turn up 25 or 30 disappeared at the school, but currently the number stands at 98.

"This was an attempt to give an identity back to the desaparecidos and therefore find our own," said Brodsky. As the catalogue notes, these were people who "disappeared without a trace, without bodies, without a word of truth about the reason for their disappearance." Only a few of them were actual militants, but, said Brodsky, "They were all involved in one way or another in trying to do or say something against a dictatorship. They were fighting for a better society. If we forget what they were up to, we are disappearing them again."

Martin Bercovich, Brodsky's best friend, disappeared on May 13, 1976. He was 21, studying medicine, but working on that particular day with his father at a jewelry store. The soldiers came in, took him, and no one ever heard from him again.

Brodsky's younger brother, Fernando, then 21, was taken from his home on August 14, 1979, and his parents eventually learned that Fernando had been taken to the Navy School of Mechanics, "the biggest concentration camp in Buenos Aires." Brodsky sat with eyes closed, hands covering his face, as he recalled getting the news on a public phone in Barcelona. He'd already gone into exile. His frantic parents were going through "peregrinations," trying to find someone with influence, anyone who could intercede. Only one person was willing to help them, the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer, a New Yorker who was living in Buenos Aires at the time. Buena memoria is dedicated to Meyer and will be shown in April at B'nai Jeshurun, his synagogue on the Upper West Side. Meyer did not succeed, however, in getting Fernando released.

Three years ago, a navy man confessed that prisoners held at the Navy School of Mechanics were routinely flown out over the Rio de la Plata, bound and gagged, and dropped into the river. Brodsky believes that this is how his brother died. And this has given him another painful conundrum to unravel. "In the Hispanic world, we are called rioplatenses," he says. "That's where we come from. The Rio de la Plata. That's our identity. And that's where they threw the people. Into what gives us our name."

It is maybe a particular problem of the 20th century: to decide who you are when your country turns on you. Brodsky was one of the very lucky ones, because he survived his kidnapping attempt. The soldiers grabbed him on May 17, 1977, on the corner of a busy public square. As they held him by the arms and the head, he screamed for help. He estimates 150 people were standing there watching him. Paralyzed. He remembers hearing shots, but never saw what made the soldiers let him go. A conflict within the group maybe. Or perhaps a second group had come along and claimed him. But once they let go of him, he ran and found a taxi home. Only then did he realize he was bleeding. He had been shot. As soon as his leg wound healed a bit, he crossed the border into Brazil, and his exile began.

Upon his return three years ago, Brodsky set up a network of photo agencies, Latin Stock, which is now the largest in South America. Then, the opening of Buena memoria in 1997, 20 years after his own near disappearance, was "like a new birth." Brodsky feels that at this point people in Argentina are tired of the political discourse about the Dirty War, but still need "to work on the internal consequences of this repression." I was struck by the fact that Brodsky spoke of his kidnapping attempt as though it was no big thing. More accurately, of course, it was no unusual thing. Many survived by sheer luck. Many brothers and best friends were lost. "Art is losing amnesia," he says. A show like Buena memoria creates a way for people to begin talking about these losses and a pain that can't be ignored.

Buena memoria is at SABA Gallery, 116 East 16th and online at www.zonezero.com.

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