MONUMENTAL INTIMACIES: VISUAL POETICS OF MOURNING AND RESILIENCE

Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa

(Essay for the exhibition catalogue, Missing Persons, at The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (pp.44-55)

 

Displaying names of victims of war and other catastrophes is a critical aspect of public memorial monuments. Wheatear listed chronologically according to the date of causality as in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.; displayed alphabetically, as in the monument of the victims of State Terrorism in Buenos Aires; or stitched onto fabric with other adornments, as in the AIDS Memorial Quilt, names have the power to conjure memories of the dead. Though traditional monuments can be experienced by large groups of people, smaller-scale memorials made of fragile materials like paper invite private and intimate encounters.

 

Artist’s books by Lorena Velázquez and María Verónica San Martín exemplify smaller-scale works that displays names and photographs to memorialized the disappeared.  In their engagement with photography as an archival tool, a paradox arises: how can a primarily visual medium like photography capture the essence of forced invisibility, disappearance, absence and loss?

 

Velazquez and San Martin take up the challenges posed by this paradox. Their works function as micromonuments in which the interplay between photographs offers a poetic of disappearance that is at once mournful, resilient and hopeful. [1] Composing image and text trough the intimate medium of the artist’s books, Velazquez and San Martin retell stories of political violence and disappearance. Both works solicit tactile and visual engagement in their deployment of different aesthetic strategies to portray the disappeared.

 

Building on the visual politics of disappearance in Latin America since the later part of the twentieth century, these objects infuse the photographic archive with an aesthetic of resistance.[2] They foreground the power of art to respond to the disappearance of students, activists, artists, workers, intellectuals, and entire families who were victims of military dictatorship, civil unrest, and drug wars that have plagued in Latin America since the mid-twentieth century.

 

San Martin’s In Their Memory: Human Rights Violation in Chile (1973-1990) documents the identity of the victims of the Chilean dictatorship and the public protest carried out in their names. The dictatorship resulted in ten of thousand of cases of disappearance, torture, and murder, and was one of the various right-wing dictatorship in South America established under the clandestine program known as Operation Condor –a United States– backed campaign of political repression and terror led by the government of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Its primary aim was to eradicate socialist and communist influences throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. [3]

 

The book contains part of this history, but the vivid red thread, symbolized blood, trails from the top and bottom of its accordion spine, indicated that the memories within insist of being retold. Word printed on the inside of the cover introduce the book as a “List of the detained-disappeared in Chile, 1973-present day.” Though many victims are still missing, San Martin’s book contends that they remain present through its poetic composition of names and images of the disappeared. The pages guide the viewer’s gaze to alternate between their names and faces that return the gaze. Red tread stitches segments of each page, linked the names to the screen-printed photographs. Memory bleeds through text and images.

 

The red stitching performs a visual poetry of resistance, which becomes more apparent upon closer inspection. Looking carefully the reader discovers that the collaged images are actually documents of the photographic placards carried by loved ones during protest. These loved once remains outside the frame, appearing only in fragments –much like some of the faces of the disappeared, in which only shadows suggest their futures. In this interplays between presence and absence, the book offers a story of how the missing bodies reappeared among living during moments of collective remembering. This story from the past has been carried into the present and now sits in the palms of the viewer’s hands.

 

The pages ask to be turned. To perform the gesture, the viewer holds a photograph between index finger and thumb, repeating the action of the loved ones who are off-frame. The reader thus carries forward the memories of the disappeared and the collective moments of mourning documented by the book. Though the viewer is also outside the frame, occupying a different temporal context, this intimate encounter encourages her to literally feel the past in the present moment by handling the book’s delicate materiality.

 

When the book’s spine is fully extended, the pages pop up. The disappeared assert their presence vertically and diagonally to create a multidimensional experience (see fig 2). A series of images repeats in different configurations, forming verses and choruses.  The faces that reappeared begin to instill a sense of familiarity in the reader who may not know them.  The text varies, though at times, it, too, repeats: “José Doming Godoy Acuña, José Mariano Godoy Acuña, Jose Nazario Godoy Acuña.”

Despite the possibility that the reader will not recognize these names, the repetition awareness her to the chilling reality of familial disappearance, inviting her to witness this atrocity and the collective suffering that followed.

 

At the end of this act of witnessing, the book asks to be closed gently, but the violet history lodged within its pages resists closure. The viewer’s hands recall the quality of the stitches pages resist closure, thus tapping into the tactile memory solicited by the book. Meanwhile, the visual memory plays out in the viewer’s mind in which images faces appear and reappeared. The red treads remain visible from the top to the bottom of the book’s spine, reminding the viewer of the stitched composition of memories residing within. San Martin’s In Their Memory thus accomplishes a monumental intimacy that remerged in Velazquez 43: Cuarenta y tres.

 

[Essay talks about Velazquez's work]

 

As micromonuments, In Their Memory and 43 poignantly capture moments of collective memory. In the monumental intimacy afforded by the mediums of the artist’s book, San Martin and Velazquez bring past and present histories into the hands of the viewers who hold these books, with a hope that perhaps they, too, will carry these histories into the future. In this act of witnessing, a performance of proximity –through the intimate encounter between viewer, artist, and the disappeared– unravels across time: viewers delicately touch faces that appear, disappear, and reaper through the artist’s visual strategies, which are enhanced by the tactile interactions the works demand. Given their embodiment of the paradoxical nature of representing missing people, these works effectively solicit a multisensory engagement with the memories contained within the materials. The paper, images, and text are woven together through a visual poetics of mourning and resilience that honors the past and provides inspiration for the futures.

 

_________________________________________________

[1] My use of micormonuments builds on James Young’s concept of the “counter monument” as a strategy used by contemporary artists and architects to challenge the traditional monuments as a nationalistic tool for heroism and self-aggrandizement. See Young, Memory, Counter-Memory, and the end of the Monument” in At Memory’s Edge: After Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).

[2]  Anna Longoni discusses the origin of photography as a toll for resistance among the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who would wear pictures of there disappears sons and daughters around their neck as their marches around the plaza during Argentina’s Dirt War (1976-83). Once the families member began demonstrating with artists and human rights organizations, they use the photographs on large placards. See Longoni, “Photographs and silhouettes: Visual Politics in Argentina,” Afterall 25, Autumn/Winter (2010), htpp://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.25.

[3] Naom Chomsky has explicitly connected Operation Condor to repressive U.S. in other parts of Latin America. See Chomsky, foreword to America’s other War: Terrorizing Colombia by Doug Stokes (New York: Zed Books, 2005), viii – xviii.