The Art and Politics of Memory
Debates about museums, monuments, and memorial sites provide the cultural dimension of the politics of memory. Legal and cultural aspects of this struggle reinforce and need each other. That is why the debate about a memory park on the banks of the La Plata in Buenos Aires within striking distance of the infamous military torture chamber during Argentina’s “dirty war” is tightly linked to claims against military officials in the courts and in the public sphere.
What interests me particularly is the fraught question of how to represent historical trauma, how to find persuasive means of public remembrance, and how to construct monuments that evade the fate of imminent invisibility. How can one counteract any monument’s inherent tendency to domesticate or even freeze memory? How can one guarantee that it stands as a persuasive effort to take responsibility for the past rather than serve merely as a symbolic, non-committal gesture?
The Parque de la Memoria gains its symbolic weight in the context of ongoing legal struggles, the pursuit of justice, and the attempt to articulate a national memory of the state terror. At the same time, its design speaks powerfully to the issue of the simultaneously global and local horizon of contemporary memory culture.
The designs for the Monumento a lasVictimas del Terrorismo de Estado, a project of Baudizzone, Lestard, Varas Studio and the associated architects Claudio Ferrari and Daniel Becker, may provide some answers to these questions about public remembrance and historical trauma. The Varas design model, which won first prize in a competition, strikes me as one of the most interesting and potentially satisfactory solutions to these difficult problems.
Art in general-and public art in particular-increasingly reflects the rather difficult and fraught attempt to take responsibility for the past. Whether through museums or parks or individual creations, memory art seeks to become the art of the witness with the artist/creator/curator as secondary witness, the witness to lives and life stories of people forever scarred by the experience of violence.
This demand to take responsibility for the past has pushed the discourse of memory toward a discourse of rights, restitution, and justice in an international field. This is the situation in which the seemingly innocuous landscaping plan for the Buenos Aires memory park almost inevitably becomes a major bone of political contention.
Indeed a global dimension always exists to such local controversies about the past, whether or not they make it into the international news circuits. All have followed upon recent political transitions or upheavals (Chile, South Africa, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Rwanda). For most if not all of these debates, the politics of Holocaust commemoration, so prominent in the global media and in the countries of the Northern Transatlantic, have functioned like a motor energizing the discourses of memory.
As an observer from a distance, I am not in a position to analyze the local controversy and public debate about the redesign of the costanera norte and the university environs in Buenos Aires in detail. But clearly, this debate goes to the heart of Argentina’s inescapable need to deal publicly with the legacies of state terrorism during the military dictatorship. As such, the debate about the Memory Park has become part of a complex local history of cover-up and amnesty, public protest and continuing legal struggle, and the nature of the park and what is to be commemorated in it has itself become a bone of contention.
Nowhere do the politics of public trauma manifest themselves more intensely than in debates about concrete interventions in the built urban environment. Once embodied in monuments or memorial sites, remembrance of traumatic events seems less susceptible to the vagaries of memory.
The creation of an urban memorial site to a national trauma such as the Parque de la memoria is a residue and reminder of a shameful national past and a political intervention in the present. By resisting the desire to forget, it becomes an agent of national identity today. Memory, after all, is always of the present even though its ostensible content is of the past. Still one might ask: how can there be a memory consensus about a national trauma that pitted one segment of society against another, that divided the national body into perpetrators and victims, beneficiaries and bystanders? The task just seems too daunting.
There are several closely connected reasons why the monument’s design is so persuasive and moving. The reasons are topographic, political, aesthetic, and, yes, global. In its stylized simplicity of design it offers a place of reflection–reflection on the relationship between river and city, history and politics. The park is located in the immediate neighborhood of the ESMA, the notorious torture chambers of the military dictatorship, and it faces the river that carries such symbolic and historical significance for all porteÃ±os-residents of Buenos Aires- and for the city itself. That traditional meaning of the La Plata as a source of life is now overlaid by the fact that the river became the grave for hundreds of desaparecidos-its earthy brown, opaque waters a symbol of the unretrievability of drugged and tortured bodies, dumped from airplanes and swept out to the sea.
The monument cuts deep like a wound or a scar into the elevated grassy surface of the park that faces the river in the half round. Visitors will enter the monument underground from the city side of the wall, and move through the zig-zag structure until they are released toward the river and the shoreline walkway. The overall design is classically modernist in its geometric configuration and felicitously minimalist in its lack of ornamentation and monumental ambition. It is thoroughly imbued with an aesthetic sensibility, but never approaches the risk of aestheticizing traumatic memory.
What I have described as a wound cut into the earth is framed along its zig-zag trajectory by four non-continuous walls which will carry the names of the disappeared. There will be 30,000 name plaques, sequenced alphabetically and by year. Many name plaques will remain empty, nameless, thus commemorating, if indirectly, the voiding of identity that always preceded disappearance.
These walls with their inscribed names will document the extent of state terror and provide a site for mourning-personal and familial, as well as social and national. Naming names is of course an age-old and venerable strategy of memorialization. However, the naming at stake in this monument is not of the traditional heroic and triumphalist kind. We are not remembering heroes of war or martyrs for the fatherland. We are remembering students and workers, women and men, ordinary people who had a social vision at odds with that of the ruling elites and the military, a vision shared by many young people across the globe at that time, but which led to imprisonment, torture, rape, and death only in a few countries of the world. Thus the memory park in Buenos Aires is more than a national monument. Memory of past hopes remains part of any imagination of another future. Thus the monument becomes part of the global legacy of 1968, perhaps its darkest and most tragic part.
The Varas monument traverses a space between two lines, the straight line of the pedestrian pathway separating the monument and the park from the city and the round line that forms the other walkway along the shore. The monument can then also be read between two lines, on one side of which you have the city and on the other the river. Memory of the desaparecidos intervenes in between: between Buenos Aires and the La Plata river, but the space between the lines, the memory space, will always be fragile and depend on interpretation. But it is a space for reading–reading the names on the walls and reading the past.
Only time will tell how the Monumento a las Victimas del Tterrorismo de Estado will be accepted and used by the public. While I don’t quite share James Young’s hyperbolic argument that the main benefit of any monument or memorial project may indeed be the public debate it unleashes, I agree that such public debate is an essential component of success for any memorial project to take hold in the public sphere and to become part of a national imaginary. But the innumerable monuments in 19th century style that litter the boulevards and public spaces of the city of Buenos Aires, as of most European cities, remind us that nothing may be so invisible as a monument, as Austrian novelist Robert Musil once said. Aesthetic appeal, formal construction, and persuasive execution remain the sine qua non for a monument to maintain a visible presence in the urban public sphere. To me, the Varas project fulfills those criteria. But it will be up to the Argentine public to embrace it and to make it fulfill its ultimate purpose.
Andreas Huyssen is the Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature and Director of Columbia University’s Center for Comparative Literature and Society. He is the author of After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986) and Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (1995). His work-which includes several other books and edited volumes that have appeared in translation in Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages.
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