The Vanishing

Torture, execution, disappearance-—grappling with the horrors of totalitarianism

A word of warning to the victims of violence, the survivors of torture and forced disappearances, and the friends and relatives of those who perished in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere in Latin America—beware memorials. They often become places where a culture isolates and entombs memory, only to walk away from it.

One commemorative park is planned for the banks of the Río de la Plata, the river where, during the Argentine military dictatorship's "Dirty War" from 1976 to 1983, an untold number of bodies from among the tens of thousands who had "vanished" were dumped at night into a watery grave.

People on the other side of the political divide want to rename an avenue in suburban Santiago for General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who died last year before he could stand trial. But are there enough streets in the capital to bear the names of the 3,200 people who disappeared or were executed under his watch? And would such a renaming suffice to preserve their memory?

A tragic family album: 
Los Compaños (The Companions), 1954
Marcelo Brodsky
A tragic family album: Los Compaños (The Companions), 1954

The question of public space and its ability to bear witness to a traumatic past lies close to the heart of "The Disappeared (Los Desaparecidos)," a deeply resonant exhibition organized by the North Dakota Museum of Art and currently on view at El Museo del Barrio. Focusing on 14 contem porary Latin-American artists, it finds them grappling with the horrors inflicted by their nations' totalitarian regimes—many supported by the United States—during the second half of the 20th century.

Chief among the tactics of terror, the "disappearance" of selected members of the population was both euphemistic ("disappearance" often meant torture and death) and wildly effective. No accusers stepped forward to prosecute these missing persons for their alleged crimes. Who, then, could be sure of their own "innocence," and to whom could the victims' relatives appeal when no one could be held accountable for their vanishing?

But the unresolved status of the dis- appeared gave them an unexpectedly long half-life in the public arena and artists' imaginations. Artists living under military dictatorships, like Nelson Leirner in Brazil, often used coded visual languages to express the atmosphere of ambient fear and violence. The exhibition at El Museo includes a short Orwellian film he made in 1975, showing figures in black uniforms and pig masks tearing apart the carcasses of roasted birds.

Others who tried to convey the experiences of the disappeared found themselves testing the limits of empathy and representation. "I often thought of how to transmit the pain that a tortured person undergoes," wrote the Argentine journalist and publisher Jacobo Timerman, who survived 30 months of clandestine incarceration, "and always I concluded that it was impossible. It is a pain without points of reference, revelatory symbols, or clues to serve as indicators."

Living in New York but haunted by the fate of friends in Uruguay, where he'd grown up, Luis Camnitzer began From the Uruguayan Torture Series (1983), a suite of 35 photo-etchings in which pictures of ordinary objects and the artist's body combine with allusive phrases to chilling effect. Beneath the image of a glass of water, we read "He feared thirst"; under a hand stuck with needles, "He practiced every day." One part of the equation is rooted in quotidian reality; the other, in unthinkable harshness.

Many of these works draw upon the photography's power as evidence. Most moving is Marcelo Brodsky's multipart installation featuring pictures from his family album of his brother Fernando as a child, and one last photograph of Fernando, a haggard yet still beautiful young man; it was taken, a note tells us, after his disappearance at the age of 23, in the Buenos Aires detention center where he was secretly held. (The photographer, a fellow prisoner, smuggled it out.) Do these idyllic scenes of boys rowing on a river or playing bows and arrows conceal the seeds of later tragedy? And can a picture stand in lieu of a final resting place?

That photographs can create real-world effects is borne out by Identity, a collaboration among 13 Argentine artists enlisted to help the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose sons and daughters were expectant parents at the time of their disappearance. (The man would often be killed, the woman held in secret until she delivered; then she'd be murdered and the infant given away.) The result: a frieze in which the particulars of each case are printed beneath pictures of the disappeared (mother and father), and beside them, a mirror. Could you be their missing child? When the work was shown in Buenos Aires, three people discovered that they were.

Other artists focus on forgetting, memory's inevitable corollary. The Colombian Oscar Muñoz paints fleeting portraits of the dead on stone, using a paintbrush dipped in water; on videotape, we watch the pictures begin to dry and disappear just moments after he has made them. And Nicolás Guagnini, whose father, a crusading Argentine journalist, disappeared when he was 11, has created a visually unstable monument to his father's memory: a series of columns imprinted with a high-contrast photograph of his father's face, which comes into and out of focus as you move around it. "My father wanted to change the world but his way did not succeed," Guagnini has said. "Through art I could make a revolution every day." Let's hope that he and other artists, in societies emerging from years of fear, get that opportunity.

 
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