Introduced by Lawrence Weschler
During the months of its initial upsurge, Polish theorists used to characterize Solidarity as an expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation, by which they meant its capacity at long last to start acting once again as the subject of its own history, instead of the object of other people’s. That seminal transformation—in its essence a grammatical one, in which an entity that had been content to receive the actions of other people’s sentences now insisted on initiating its own—lies at the root of all revolutionary democratic upsurges. Of course, such upsurges usually get met by countervailing pressure, for in its essence Repression consists in taking people who’ve suddenly taken to acting like subjects, pithing them of that subjectivity, and turning them back into good little objects once again. Resistance, in turn, consists in the struggle to evade that dismal fate.
During the Dirty Wars that characterized much of Latin American history over the past thirty years, one of the most pervasive and effective tactics of Repression consisted in the simple disappearing of opponents to the regime. Such opponents (student activists, labor leaders, peasant advocates, crusading teachers, and so forth) didn’t just disappear: they were disappeared (talk about grammatical innovations!). Rendered into objects of the most radical sort—which is to say, corpses—they were, terrifyingly, further transubstantiated into nonobjects. Disappeared, as it were, into thin air—it was as if they (and their now manifestly futile subjectivity) had never existed at all. The regime could claim ignorance and deny responsibility as to their fates while all the while spreading further terror among the population at large and demobilizing the families and friends of the specific disappeared activists in question, who now drained energies they might otherwise have channeled into opposition into a frantic, futile, and demoralizing quest for information regarding the fates of their vanished loved ones. A neat trick.
Years passed, times changed, the repressive regimes lapsed, but not before lavishing absolute amnesties upon themselves, enforcing a further amnesia on the subjugated populations. The disappeared were meant to stay disappeared, for good and ever. Weak democracies struggled for traction in thrall to such edicts, and yet there was a gaping void at the center of their efforts. For, as the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert had noted in a not altogether different context (in his magnificent poem “Mr Cogito on the Need for Precision”), “Ignorance about those who have disappeared / undermines the reality of the world.”
It was against this backdrop that in one country after another artists began pitching their creativity in a battle against forgetting, which was nothing less, in this context, than a reassertion of the abiding reality of the world. Some of the simpler efforts merely insisted on honoring those who had perished, rescuing their memory from the abyss of disappearance. As time passed, however, some of the more sophisticated artists began to probe some of the problematic elements inherent in that very challenge, for the terrain of memory and forgetting is always more barbed and bedeviled and bedeviling than one might at first assume.
One of the most engaging (and haunting) explorations of recent South American efforts in this regard was recently mounted by the North Dakota Museum of Art, of all places: a retrospective of the work of twelve artists from across the continent on the theme of The Disappeared that may in fact have been the show of the year. Of all the artists represented in the show, the Columbian master Oscar Muñoz (born in 1951 and now resident in Cali) may have most tellingly evoked some of the anguished paradoxes inherent in such remembering. One of his pieces consisted in a series of polished steel mirrors, lined up at eye level one beside the next along a wall, in which the visitor might first spy himself or, coming closer, the ghost of one of the disappeared, brought to momentary life, as it were, by the fog of his own breath, and now already fading away once again.
A second piece, evoked in the pages that follow, rang variations on that same theme. This time Muñoz had slotted five high-definition plasma video screens into the walls of a nearby alcove, one to either side and three in the middle, facing a bench upon which the visitor was invited to tarry. The screens in turn were unfurling five different video loops, about eight minutes each, in a staggered fuguelike succession, such that a new one seemed to be resuming every two minutes or so. In each case, the pattern was the same: an empty grayish-white expanse into which a hand suddenly protruded, bearing a paintbrush and quickly sketching out a face (the medium, one suddenly realized being water, and the gray-white expanse blazing hot concrete). Once the face had been completed (Muñoz was using newspaper photos of disappeared victim as his source), the hand receded, and the face began to fade, presently evaporating once again into thin air, the hand meanwhile having moved on to another screen. Memory and forgetting in Sisiphyean contest, grappling for the Reality of the World.