Memory as a representational apparatus in Latin American art, executed through the use of found objects and visual narratives, relates to a history of cultural conflict in the mid twentieth century, and it is marked by political and social violence, disappearance, terror, and subsequent collective trauma. Memory, in The Concise Oxford Dictionary, is defined as the “faculty by which things are recalled in the mind and recovery of one’s own knowledge by mental effort or recollection”. A found object is defined as a “material thing” that “one become[s] aware of or get[s] possession of by chance. A visual narrative is defined as a “kind of composition that confines itself to a tale, story or recital of facts that is concerned with seeing”.
Colombia’s La Violencia was “a kind of social conflict that [manifested] itself through armed action of groups, especially in peasant neighbourhoods” (Gerassi 192). The violence began as “a civil war …spurred by a struggle for power between members of the Conservative and Liberal parties”, and notably, “recent and past periods of violence are inextricably intertwined (Roldán 1). In Argentina, the situation started as “a secretive state repression [that] descended on Argentine society employing terror to cow people into political submission” by the military junta (Robben 273). This ‘Dirty War’ was a campaign against Argentina’s military rulers by left wing opponents where terrorism was pervasive and the mysterious disappearance of people was of epidemic proportion. This state repression gave rise to ‘cultural terror’ in which a silence prevailed, manifesting into a ‘culture of fear’ (Robben 273). In regions like Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, brutal violence manifested in a war over the right to determine political, social, economic and cultural practices and as a struggle for cultural self-determination in the face of conflicting military, government and guerrilla groups hungry for power.
Latin American artists stir the memory of social oppression, to break the silence about institutionalized violence, in an effort to reconcile the collective trauma. Common themes within these visual narratives are: time suspended and paralyzed; silence; exile; violence; random kidnapping and ‘the disappeared’; torture; terror; and trauma. The terror evoked by these instances of violence boils in the spaces between events, where time hangs suspended, in wait for the next horror. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges distinguishes different ideas of time, from “alteration and disintegration” where time “percolates the interstices of whatever object and circumstance it encounters”, to “uprooting and exile as a dimension of time” (López, Herzog, and Rausch 02:01). These reflections on time contain “histories and experiences that [can be described] as an authentic Latin American experience of time and history” (López, Herzog, and Rausch 02:01). Latin American artists address the issues of time and memory, repression and collective trauma in their work in various ways.
Doris Salcedo positions herself as part of the history of violence in Colombia, responding through art to recover the memory of dramatic historical events marked by terror. Noviembre 6 y 7 (2002) memorializes the violent 1985 seizure of the Supreme Court in Bogotá by a guerrilla group controlled by drug lords, through the lowering of hundreds of empty wooden chairs against the façade of the new Palace of Justice. In the silence and emptiness of those chairs, time is suspended, weighted in a “metaphor of waiting, to which the hostages [of the conflict] were condemned” (López, Herzog, and Rausch 30:06). The gallery installation of Noviembre 6 (2001) materializes the experience of sorrow through the display of metal and wood chairs “desolate in space, made of cold materials and distorted”…“[bearing] witness to the tragedy” where 75 people died and the historic court building and all archives were destroyed by fire (López, Herzog, and Rausch 30:30). Through her use of found objects such as furniture and clothing, Salcedo draws attention to the “results of violence and collective trauma in a manner that is visually subtle and psychologically compelling” (Sullivan 223). The objects signify the person to which they once belonged “contrasting the enduring nature of inanimate objects with the transient fragility of human existence” (Sullivan 223). Her work calls for people to face the historical reality through her use of familiar everyday objects.
Oscar Muñoz responds to the issue of fifty years of violence in Colombia by evoking the theme of time and memory through his sculptural narratives, using various means to “retrieve memories and give them valid visual expression” (López, Herzog, and Rausch 19:02). Aliento (1996-1997) is a series of greased and photo silkscreened metal discs mounted to the gallery wall, referring to the quality of memory disappearing and losing detail over time. The action of the viewer’s breath on the disc brings the image into existence, an action that involves “the viewer directly in the complexity of the subject” of the “waxing and waning inherent in memories” (López, Herzog, and Rausch 19:02). Without explicitly discussing violence here in this particular piece, Muñoz brings awareness to the relationship we have with memory as part of a discussion related to themes of trauma.
Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca addresses issues of isolation and displacement in his visual narratives. In his various paintings such as “Untitled” (1985), the image of a bed “appear[s] as the focal point of usually empty rooms”, giving the depicted space “a sense of quiet desolation” where “nothing happens, and no specific reference exists beyond the object itself” (Sullivan 221). His work touches on the principle themes of memory and loss, home and displacement, personal identity, and collective ethos. Out of these pictorial images arose the use of real beds painted with city maps making up large installation works. In Sin Título (1992) the beds with their sometimes impossibly small size and random button patterns represent “the anxiety of dislocation” as “[surfaces] where the anxiety of life’s experiences plays itself out” (Sullivan 222). Through the use of the bed as object and the map as visual narrative he refers to the era of dictatorship in Argentina, when the home became a place susceptible to police raids and the city a large urban metropolis sometimes familiar, sometimes disorienting.
Fabian Marcaccio’s visual narratives are associated with violence, memory, time and historical social themes. He engages in a representational manner with events and memory through large-scale works in a hybrid medium between painting and photo based imagery. The motifs in his work “waver between micro and macro organizations” sensed to be “in a state of high tension” and acting as “a metaphor for social conditions” in Argentinean society and others (Hentschel 37). In “Time Paintants” (1999), the canvas spreads around the room like a large environment, engaging the viewer in it. Through painting Marcaccio seeks to “map the post-human-rights world, where the state seems indifferent to individual rights” (López, Herzog, and Rausch 16:40). The imagery involves accounts of history referring, for example, to the military junta gathering people in large numbers into soccer stadiums before they were sent to prison and subsequent torture.
In Latin American art the theme of memory and the employment of found objects and visual narratives relates to a history of violence. Time is paralyzed, weighted, and infused with memories of torture, exile and disappearance. Repressed memory and the silent weight of collective trauma are stirred through the use of familiar domestic objects placed in silent memorial of those to whom they belonged. Visual narratives conjure a sense of place and of environments both familiar and disorienting, while images of the tortured body, of blood and desolation stir realizations about the horror of past social and political events.