October 26, 2011

At Tjaden, Memory Persists

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We, carrying genealogies more telling, more comprehensive than our history textbooks, live in cities configured by remnants of both past and present. But how often do we think of the Willard Straight takeover of 1969 when we tear into Okenshields? And how often do we honor the victims of 9/11 with our remembrance when pushing through lower Manhattan? What is it like to walk through a city and experience more than just the location itself, to feel implicated spatially, emotionally, and cognitively? Meredith Gudesblatt ’12 asks these important questions in her student show. Descending on Buenos Aires with her lens, she creates testimonies of the steady yet spectral trauma evident in a clean city nearly unsullied by the “dirty war.”

“My memory is magnificent for forgetting…” is Gudesblatt’s exhibition at the Tjaden this week, running through to Friday, the 28th. Gudesblatt aims to contextualize the Argentine Military Dictatorship — in time, in space and, most notably, in the present. Though it’s been over thirty years since the violence of the state-sponsored terrorism befell the Argentines, the socio-political implications of the seven-year takeover still loom large as the spatial remnants of los desparecidos (the missing) in Buenos Aires remain ubiquitous.

Gudesblatt, a foreign eye, acts as an interloper: a Jew in a Roman Catholic city, a Cornell College Scholar with a Tjaden art show, a one-time photographer wielding an SLR. But perhaps it’s exactly this outsider perspective that has enabled her to see what Argentines do not. Where a local’s desensitized complacency might persist, Gudesblatt’s fresh consciousness cannot overlook.

This topography of terror is as much a study of memory as it is one of forgetting. What begs to be forgotten is often what’s most necessary to remember, and yet it is the most conspicuous of locales that breeds the most ignorance. Divided into seven sections, or seven locations in the city, the photography is all black and white. Though Gudesblatt believes, “There is something to be lost in black and white,” she also considers, “Baldosas (tiles commemorating these deaths) are charming in all their color, but, for me, black and white equalizes everything.”

And it’s difficult to deny the striking impact of such black and white values in a photo like “30,000,” where the contrasting silhouettes of a mother and son walking past the Memory Museum incites wonder. The image, as Meredith can only describe as “ghostly,” begs viewers to question the context of such a scene. Is the mother taking the boy to school? What kind of conversation do the two have about the history of that site? Or is there no conversation at all? How can one of the largest torture and detention centers of the dictatorship become mere scenery in the background?

It’s these types of confounding questions, unanswerable in their nature, that seek the most closure. Similar questions arise when viewing a cluster of images surrounding a defiled mural. Parked in front of a school in an upscale, residential neighborhood, it’s hard to imagine anybody walking past such a politically-charged piece without paying the graphic any notice — and yet Gudesblatt photographs evidence of several such people. After everything, death and dictatorship included, is this what such history has been reduced to — the forgotten backdrop of our daily lives?

Likewise, are the cries of anguished mothers, grieving for their lost loved ones, white noise in the background? The photos of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo are significant in their depiction of suffering. Mothers and grandmothers of 15,000 to 30,000 desaparecidos gather at this site for years without fail. It’s a scene propagated through many publications. But seeing them again, faces marked by sober determination, and the unrelenting sadness of their mission never obscures into the commonplace.

Even photographs of street art prove rather pithy in their messages. In fact, one image depicting the “Buenos Aires Ecologica (Ecology)” portrays the inherent cyclical nature of Argentine leadership. In place of the regular “reduce, reuse, recycle” in a stenciled recycling symbol, three faces are found, representing “dictatorship, democracy, continued repression.”

Undeniably, these images are heavily word-based. Words are found in every group of photos with some photosets comprised of words entirely. Every one of these words are Spanish, but no fear, non-Spanish speaking population, you needn’t any training in this Romance language. Only common sense is required. When a sign for the “Centro Clandestino de Detencion, Tortura y Exterminio” is shown, it’s not difficult to conceive of what happenings occurred there. Besides, the impact of such a sign is made all the more powerful by the “aha” moment between translation.

In fact, in this show, it’s not the apprehension of the images that’s the problem but the forgetting. Gudesblatt’s title proves true: my memory is magnificent for forgetting … but perhaps not magnificent enough. “[The show]’s about what you choose to witness and what you choose to ignore,” Gudesblatt says, but by exhibit’s end, we no longer have the choice of self-imposed ignorance. What we witness and what we ignore, what we remember and what we forget is like the stubborn graffiti on Buenos Aires walls—it may be erased temporarily, only to be replaced by more and more of the same.

Original Author: Alice Wang