The Essex Collection of Art from Latin America is supported in its work by academic staff and students at the University of Essex, as well as external researchers. This community contributes texts and papers to our online catalogue and to other ESCALA publications.

Gabriela Salgado

Bridging oblivion with remembrance: The good memory of Marcelo Brodsky

This essay was originally published to accompany the exhibition Buena Memoria at Photofusion Gallery, Brixton, London, 2 April 2 - 15 May 2004

Buena Memoria is a photographic essay by Argentine photographer Marcelo Brodsky. The project developed over the years with the aim of helping the reconstruction of the individual, social and historical memory in a country condemned by 30,000 unresolved deaths.

The core of that project, like the first piece laid in a puzzle, is the intervened photograph entitled 1st year, 6th Division, 1967.1 The work was exhibited for the first time in Marcelo Brodsky's high school, Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (CNBA) in October 1996 during the ceremony called 'Memory Bridge', organised by the Argentine Historical and Social Memory Foundation and Madres de Plaza de Mayo in memory of the school's 'desaparecidos'.2 The ceremony consisted of the exhibition of Marcelo Brodsky's photograph, taken in the very same school thirty years earlier, while the names of the 98 ex-students murdered by the military Junta 3 were read out-loud in a symbolic roll call. By means of naming the initially 98 dead students and announcing them as 'present' the act of erasure that had confined them to oblivion for over twenty years was challenged.4

Marcelo Brodsky had found the eighth grade annual portrait of the 1967 division upon his return to Argentina, after a forced exile of several years in Spain. He set out to find out what had happened to his classmates from the CNBA. Three of them had been kidnapped and incarcerated by the military regime, two of them, including Marcelo's best friend Martin, were never to appear again. Marcelo's brother Fernando was also one of the victims of state terrorism. He was kidnapped in 1979 and has been missing ever since. As he began to make contact with his classmates, he made an intervention on an enlarged copy of the original black and white portrait with text summarising their lives during the nearly thirty years that had passed. But those pencil marks inevitably defined more than individual fate, for what they describe the fatidic socio-political events that transformed the lives of an entire generation of Argentines. The group photograph became a portion of history, the picture of an entire nation.

By the mid-nineties, Argentina began to confront her past and work towards the clarification of unresolved disappearances with the aid of grass- roots human rights organisations. The making of the work and its exhibition coincided with the public demonstrations that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the coup d'├ętat. In post-dictatorship Argentina, photography became a vehicle for memory in moments of confusion, and functioned as a constant reminder of that which was initially destined to extermination. Photographs became banners for those demanding justice and at the same time, an unavoidable evidence of absence, a memento. If Western faith's engagement with the image determines an association of the sign with the real, the public exhibition of images of the disappeared evokes the fetishism of the lost object in a quasi-religious way.5

Since the end of dictatorship, a group of women, the 'madres y abuelas de Plaza de Mayo'6 had used the portraits of the absent ones to evoke and sustain a sense of struggle. For all Argentines, those images become the trade mark of resistance and even transcended the country's borders. Black and white, sometimes blurred, the portraits of the lost youth brought back the real faces of those whose lives had been interrupted while most of the population was living in ignorance. But it is not only political repression that acts as an eraser of memory: the passing of time also vandalizes that which needs to remain in our consciousness. In this sense, it was the aim of Brodsky's project to endow the photographic image with the function of reminding us of historical facts that needed be acknowledged in order to be avoided in the future.

However, Marcelo Brodsky's photographs are not constructions. The images are rescued from real situations, almost like chance encounters waiting to happen. We see fragments of words written on sign posts, the view in the car's rear mirror, a partly effaced graffiti: the product of a biased glance at reality that reveals a new order. He favours the conceptual treatment of the image: capturing images that border on in abstraction, as in the images of the River Plate's brown waters. At times, his images render what he calls 'the evanescence of symbols'. Another idea that permeates Marcelo Brodsky's works is that of the premonition. Three adolescent friends appear blindfolded against a wall, as if waiting to be shot. The photograph was taken in 1974, two years before the military coup. In Fernando in our room, 1968, his brother Fernando appears blurred, his face erased by the shifting of the hand in the moment of shooting the photograph. A premonition of the evanescence of the self?

In this way, tragedy is not depicted with formal means of representation, but reconstructed symbolically and verging on (or merging with) the allegorical, as in the work of other contemporary photographers. An example of this is the way in which Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar dealt with the massive genocide in Rwanda. In 2004, one guesses what the real faces of those prisoners of war detained in Guantanamo Bay are like, surviving impunity while remaining unnamed, defaced.

The idea of erasure is also present in the images of the River Plate as the river that gives a name to the inhabitants of Buenos Aires became, in the years of the 'Dirty War' an anonymous tomb for those who were imprisoned and tortured by the army. The river appears in The three of us in a boat as a backdrop of childhood games, a magic place of discovery. After a series of confessions from repentant members of the army in 1995, Argentina came to terms with a revelation: the bodies of some of the disappeared will not be recovered because they had been thrown, still alive, into the River Plate during the so called 'flights of death'. The magic river had turned into a mysterious whole that signified the impossibility of burial. Under its dark brown surface, the horror of violence had erased all identities.
The vandalism of time may succeed in defacing the very personal features of what memory strives to preserve, but an evanescent face or a familiar smell will keep trying to come to the surface.

1.One copy of this work donated by the artist to ESCALA was lent for this exhibition.
2. The term refers generically to the 30,000 missing people who were kidnapped and murdered by state terrorism from 1973 to 1979.
3. 'Junta' is the name of the Military group that following a coup in March 1976 usurped power in Argentina until 1983. The period is also known as 'la dictadura' (the years of dictatorship) which in fact was just a denomination for a period governed by state terrorism.
4. During the course of the ceremony, names kept being added to the compiled list to total 105 at the end of the event.
5. Jean Baudrillard, 'Symbolic exchange and Death', Paris, 1976
6. Mothers and grandmothers looking for their disappeared children.

Gabriela Salgado, 2004

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