Visualizing Absence

By Lorie Novak, Barbara Sutton, and Mirta Kupferminc | NYU

The slide shows Memorias y Encierros / Memories and Enclosures by Barbara Sutton (Argentina) and ¿VER O NO VER? / TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE? by Mirta Kupferminc (Argentina) were created at the Hemispheric Institute Encuentro in Buenos Aires in June 2007 as part of the Digital Photography Workshop Visualizing the Body Politic, taught by Julio Pantoja and myself and assisted by Carolina Soler. Barbara, Mirta, and I were also participants in the Workgroup on Trauma, Memory and Performance co-led by Marianne Hirsch and Diana Taylor. As part of this workgroup, we visited the ESMA, Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Naval Mechanics School), the largest and most notorious site where political prisoners were taken and never seen again during the military dictatorship of 1976–1983 that has been transformed (not without controversy) into a national memorial. We also were given tours of the Parque de la Memoria with Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism, the state-sponsored memorial to the disappeared, and an alternative memorial, the Parque Indoamericano: Paseo de Los Derechos Humanos, outside of the city center of Buenos Aires. These two slide shows reflect diverse strategies for thinking about disappearance and memorialization. Barbara Sutton—a Women’s Studies scholar working at SUNY, Albany—focused on the absence of markers for the female victims of the ‘Dirty War.’ She noted that while there were specific memorials for workers, students, and various political and nationalist groups of victims, no one had thought to acknowledge that women—one third of the disappeared—remain invisibilized. Internationally-renowned visual artist Mirta Kupferminc takes a more abstract approach in her reaction to the sites. As someone who lived and worked in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War, Mirta’s relationship to the space is different from those of us who were visiting the sites from abroad and from Argentineans who were born after the dictatorship. Photographs have been used extensively in response to the Dirty War to witness, locate, and commemorate the victims. Well-known groups such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayoand H.I.J.O.S. have used photographic images to memorialize, witness, protest, and incite action concerning the plight of 'the disapppeared.' The time-based slide shows created by Sutton and Kupferminc have used photographs not only to visualize the absence of the thousands who died as a result of state terrorism but to also question the difficult process of memorialization.

— Lorie Novak