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The Art of Memory

October 20, 2010

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the Muslim Voices of Philadelphia project.)

Earlier this month, in Buenos Aires, closing arguments were made in one of the legal cases brought against the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, the period of the so-called Dirty War. The case, referred to by the names of the three clandestine military centers ("Atlético-Banco-Olimpo") where 181 victims were detained, is one of hundreds that have been opened since the amnesty laws that protected members of the military from being prosecuted for crimes against humanity were struck down. The trials are open to the public, and the courtrooms have been packed by families of the victims and citizens interested in a resolution to this painful episode in the country's history.

Architecture, sculpture, and painting; music; film and video; poetry, drama, prose -- all have been employed to tell the tragic story of a people's loss and pain after similarly brutal episodes in the past. The arts are fundamental to the process of memorialization.

In Argentina, the process has included myriad plaques and other expressions of remembrance and remembering. At the national level, a group of ten human rights organizations gained the support of legislators in 1998 to establish the Park of Memory on the banks of the river that forms the country's northeastern boundary, the Rio de la Plata, and construct the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism. In short order, an international competition to commission additional sculpture and a visitors center for the park was launched.

"In a world that finds itself widely aestheticized, art seeks out strategies and loopholes in order to continue constructing meaning," writes Florencia Battiti in an essay in the catalogue produced for the monument's official dedication in 2007. "In a society such as Argentina's, where terror reigned and justice has not yet entirely arrived, art as a social practice adds its efforts to the (always insufficient) task of reconstructing memory and the cultural fabric that was torn apart...."

More than 600 sculpture proposals were received and 17 selected; to date, seven have been installed. They include a life-size sculpture by Claudia Fontes of Pablo Miguez, a 14-year-old boy who was "disappeared." The sculpture is stainless steel, polished to a mirror-like finish, and situated in the river -- the widest in the world at that point -- opposite the park, where it appears to float on the surface.

Another, by Nicolas Guagnini, is composed of twenty-five rectangular white slabs, placed vertically and at a slight angle, so that as you walk past the piece there is a point at which you see only the edges of the slabs and the river beyond, while at other points you can see the flat faces of the slabs, on which is painted a portrait in black of another one of the desaparecidos: the artist's father, the image taken from his identity-card photograph.

The choice to memorialize the desaparecidos with multiple sculptures and four free-standing walls covered with 30,000 porphyry plaques -- 10,000 of which are inscribed in raised letters with the name and age of a known victim -- rather than a single monument, was deliberate. As the catalogue states: "There is no single monument that pretends to carry out the inexorably authoritarian mission of condensing meaning in an absolute sense. What you have is a group of works, within which diverse ideas and strategies can be identified."

"To think is a revolutionary act"

Plata_monument On a recent sunny day in Buenos Aires, in the Park of Memory, a group of artists and human rights activists gathered to inaugurate a new sculpture: a rusted steel slab, twenty feet high, split into two pieces, with letters cut out to read "pensar es un hecho revolucionario." Argentine artist Marie Orensanz joins six other artists who have had work installed on the grounds of the park. A nearby building houses data on the victims -- some of whom were pregnant women (as many as four hundred children were born in detention or captured after a parent was arrested or killed) -- and a space for cultural activities and educational events. The monument was initiated by a group of human rights organizations, including the Mothers of the Plaza -- mothers and grandmothers who, during the years of the Dirty War, marched in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires carrying photos of their disappeared sons and daughters to protest, and bring to the world's attention, the brutal acts of repression carried out by the junta. The park was built on land owned by the city university and the various installations -- the visitors' center, artwork, and other elements -- have been financed (and continue to be supported) by the municipal government. "It's important that the park is a city project," said Nora Hochbaum, the director of the monument, "because the state bears the responsibility for what happened."

Argentina is finally prosecuting the crimes of the dictatorship, and, three decades later, more names of the disappeared continue to emerge from the cases being tried. "The history of that period is now part of the national school curriculum," said Hochbaum, "but it's important to supplement that information through seminars, publications and visual art. That's our specialty here: the art of memorializing."

During the dictatorship, many prisoners were forced from airplanes over the River de la Plata, to drown in the waters below. "The park had to be in this place," said Hochbaum. "The river is the tomb of so many disappeared."

On the day of the inauguration, the Rio de la Plata, filled with sailboats and glittering in the sunshine, is the color of old silver; the few clouds cast blue-violet shadows on the water. Visitors walk about the grounds, some searching the walls for the names of family or friends, some biking or roller-skating through. A few dogs tag along, looking content to be alive.

Communities, nations, the world look to the arts in such situations for language to express the inexpressible, to capture a collective memory, to suggest a path away from violence and pain and toward resolution and maybe a return of something resembling hope. We should all be grateful for that.

(Photo credit: Kathryn Pyle; left to right: Nora Hochbaum; Marie Orensanz; Patricia Valdez, director, Memoria Abierta)

-- Kathryn Pyle

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Posted by Barbara Kohnen Adriance  |   October 27, 2010 at 09:55 AM

I would be interested in learning more about the public's reaction to these monuments, particularly young people's. Do they feel a connection to the past, or any collective responsibility? Should they?

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   October 27, 2010 at 11:11 AM

Good questions, Barbara. If anyone has any insights -- either directly related to the situation in Argentina or derived from similar situations elsewhere -- feel free to share. In the meantime, I'll reach out to Kaye and ask her to weigh in.

Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   December 09, 2010 at 10:11 PM

Thank you, Barbara. This is a topic worth exploring, and I'll ask some of the folks that work in the field. Meanwhile, I can say that earlier this year I took a tour of the Naval Mechanic's School in Buenos Aires (ESMA), the most notorious detention center, that's been made into a museum. Visits are by reservation only and you go on a tour with maybe 30 people and a guide. I would say 75% of the people were under 30, so there's clearly a connection. I'll share any information I find regarding on what young people express.

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