On the Art of the Disappeared

Marjorie Agosin, Forces That Be, Zbigniew Herbert, Willed Ignorance, Amnesiac Amnesty, The North Dakota Museum of Art, The Power of Faces, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty

On the Art of the Disappeared

Lawrence Weschler
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Buenos Aires

When she showed me her photograph,
she said,
this is my daughter,
she still hasn’t come home
She hasn’t come home in ten years.
But this is her photograph.
Isn’t it true that she’s very pretty?
She’s a philosophy student
and here she is when she was
fourteen years old
and she had her first communion
starched and sacred.
This is my daughter
she’s so pretty
I talk to her every day
she no longer comes home late, and this is why I reproach her
much less
but I love her so much
this is my daughter
every night I say goodbye to her
I kiss her
and it’s hard for me not to cry
even though I know that she will not come
home late
because as you know, she has not come
home for years
I love this photo very much
I look at it every day
it seems that only yesterday
she was a little feathered angel in my arms
and here she looks like a young lady,
a philosophy student
but, isn’t it true that she’s so pretty,
that she has an angel’s face
that it almost seems as if she were alive?


That, from the Chilean poet Marjorie Agosin, is a poem titled “Buenos Aires.” In 2006, the citizens of Buenos Aires are marking the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of Argentina’s devastating Dirty War, which would presently come to see the disappearance of as many as thirty thousand of the country’s citizens—the term disappearance being both a euphemism and as such an evasion (for these people didn’t just disappear, they were disappeared, they were made to disappear) and also a cannily accurate description of their fate as seen from the point of view of their surviving friends and relatives: suddenly, horrifically, unaccountably (and this last was key), these dear people had just vanished without a trace and were no more. (The thirtieth anniversary of the launch of such campaigns of repression elsewhere in Latin America—Guatemala, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and so forth—is already several years past.)

Argentinean artist Nicolas Guagnini (b. 1966) calls his array of mysteriously black-streaked vertical white vinyl posts 30,000, an obvious allusion to the 30,000 citizens the Argentinean military arranged to be made to disappear following their 1976 coup, a number which included his own father, a journalist kidnapped the following year, never to be seen again, except now, in occasional glimpses, as the spectator circumnavigates the son’s array, and, suddenly, the father’s face snaps into startling focus.

It was a diabolically effective tactic. If, as has sometimes been noted, repression is the effort by the Forces That Be to take people who had started behaving like subjects (instead of the abject objects into which role history had theretofore long relegated them), to take such people and turn them back into good little mute and neutered objects once again, one could hardly have come up with a better one. For the re­gime was able simultaneously to eliminate some of its most vividly ef­fective opponents, to discombobulate the wider opposition as such (send­ing friends, relatives, and co­workers who might otherwise be working to overthrow the regime into ever more desperate and futile and isolating efforts at search and rescue), to demoralize the wider so­ciety through the whiff of terror such disconcerting tactics evin­ced—and all the while was able to deny that it had been doing anything of the sort. These people, after all, had just “disappeared”—how was the regime supposed to know what had happened to them?

Columbian Juan Manuel Echavarría (b. 1947), a writer before he became an artist, manages to channel the whole wretched agony of his country through a wall of achingly observed close-up photographs of a single mannequin, that of a child, trashed and abandoned to the elements outside an old textile factory in Bogotá.

As the years passed and one by one the regimes encountered other sorts of difficulties (military defeat, financial debacle, institutional disarray) and began ever so gingerly exiting the scene, they invariably took care to lavish amnesties upon themselves, further shielding their officers from prosecution for any of the depredations they in any case steadfastly denied ever having been party to. And by and large, with certain exceptions, such retrospective amnesties held, and kept on holding, till the point where the statute of limitations kicked in, further shielding any wrongdoers.

A sort of civic normalcy began to take hold, albeit a peculiarly riddled one. For as the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert had once parsed things, in his poem “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision,”

and yet in these matters

accuracy is essential

we must not be wrong

even by a single one


we are despite everything

the guardians of our brothers


ignorance about those who have disappeared

undermines the reality of the world

And a democracy could be many things—could countenance all sorts of special arrangements to se­cure the cooperation of its various contending interests—but at  the very least it would seem that it needed to be grounded in reality, a reality continuously undercut by any willed (albeit enforced) ignorance (or amnesiac amnesty) as to the fate of those disappeared.

And yet here is where things began to get interesting, where the tactic of disappearing people doubled back on some of its progenitors. For legally speaking, while torture and mayhem and maybe even manslaughter and murder could be subject to a retrospective am­nesty or a statute of limitations, dis­appear­ance was different. Disappearance was an ongoing crime: its victims were still disappeared and hence as subject to legal recourse today, long after that amnesty, as they ever had been. Or so one judiciary after another began to hazard. And at long last accountability of a sort began to seem possible…


From 1981 to 1991, the veteran Uruguayan master Antonio Frasconi (b. 1919) perpetrated a series of ­eighteen woodcuts around the theme of his own country’s disappeared, perhaps the most remarkable of them being this one here, in which the abject march of doomed prisoners is momentarily undercut by the piercingly lucid and defiant gaze of just one prisoner who still manages to raise his head ever so slightly so as to be able to take it all in.

Still, this legal sort of ac­countability—this systematic holding of malefactors to account in a court of law—only addressed a part of the putrefying legacy of the era of disappearances (and even that fitfully and sporadically at best). The culture of these countries as a whole had also been undermined and laid waste by those campaigns, and in this sense it was going to be up to others besides lawyers and judges to begin the labor of reclamation: up to artists and playwrights and novelists and filmmakers.

And they have clearly been doing so. Such at any rate is the pressing news that comes barreling forth from a show, originally or­ganized at the North Dakota Mu­seum of Art, of all places, currently touring the world, that surveys some of the most powerful and un­settling efforts by Latin American artists to come to terms with the toxic legacy of those terrible years—the show from which I have drawn some of the instances spread across these pages.

Before turning to specific in­stances, though, I would just call attention to certain abiding themes that recur from one artist and country to another. The power, for starters, of brute facticity (of this bicycle, that x-rayed jaw) in the labor of reclamation. And likewise the force of names—specific names, carefully compiled and re­spectfully nested. And likewise, and somehow especially evocatively, the power of faces.

In a luminous little essay on “The Face,” Jean-Paul Sartre once noted how the face “creates its own time within universal time…. Against [that] stagnant background, the time of living bodies stands out because it is oriented…. In the midst of these stalactites hanging in the present, the face, alert and inquisitive, is always ahead of the look I direct upon it…. A bit of fu­ture has now entered the room: a mist of futurity surrounds the face: its future.” The face, Sartre goes on to insist, “is not merely the upper part of the body…. It is corporeal still and yet different from a belly or a thigh: what it has in addition is voracity; it is pierced with greedy holes.” The greediest, the most ravenous of those holes, of course, being the eyes. For “now the two spheres are turning in their orbits: now the eyes are becoming a look.” Sartre goes on to conclude how “if we call transcendence that ability of the mind to pass beyond itself and all other things as well, to escape from itself that it may lose itself elsewhere; then to be a visible transcendence is the meaning of a face.”

Brazilian master Cildo Meireles (b. 1948) dealt with the mounting siege of terror, mass arrests, and ironclad censorship afflicting his country in real time, as it was happening, in 1970, by commandeering empty Coke bottles, and before returning them for deposit, silkscreening them with white ink mottoes, invisible until the bottles had been refilled with sweet brown soda at the factory and sent back into (now subversive) recirculation.

But look at what is going on here. For time and again in this show (as with the photo in Marjorie Agosin’s poem), we are being confronted with a squandered and truncated gaze, a forward-looking, future-tending gaze that has nevertheless been interrupted, cut short, cruelly severed. We, of course, here and now (for the time being, as it were), are forced to embody the future toward which that gaze was directed, but it becomes up to us to reach out, to gaze back, to fulfill and redeem that haunted gaze.

The redemption involved, how­ever, is of a complicated sort. In the immediate wake of the Second World War, in an essay titled “La guerre a eu lieu” (translated as “The War Has Taken Place,” though the title might more accurately and tellingly have been rendered “The War Has Had a Place”), the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty noted how:

we have learned history, and we claim that it must not be forgotten. But are we here not the dupes of our emotions? If ten years hence, we reread these pages and so many others, what will we think of them? We do not want this year of 1945 to become just an­other year among many. A man who has lost his son or a woman he loved does not want to live beyond that loss. He leaves the house in the state it was in. The familiar objects upon the table, the clothes in the ­closet mark an empty place in the world.… The day will come, however, when the meaning of these books will change: once… they were wearable, and now they are out of style and shabby. To keep them any longer would not be to make the dead person live on; quite the opposite, they date his death all the more cruelly.

One of the Argentinean military’s most fiendish refinements was to kidnap pregnant couples, torture and kill the husband, keep the woman alive until she gave birth, at which point she too was murdered, and the infant given over to infertile military couples for adoption. In 1998, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires—noting how such children, still oblivious to their origins, would now be approaching the same age their parents were at the time of their disappearance—contacted a collective of Buenos Aires artists named Identidad (Identity) to see if they could contrive some sort of intervention. The collective generated a maze of photographs, with images of each kidnapped couple ranged to either side of a mirror, such that visitors would be forced to acknowledge their own complicity in the country’s tragedy, and certain specific visitors might be given to acknowledge something more compelling still.

And I’m likewise re­minded of a luminous parable of W. S. Merwin’s, his prose poem “Unchopping a Tree,” which begins, ever so self-evidently, “Start with the leaves”—continuing—“the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places.” And it goes on like that (“It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated…. It goes without saying that if the tree was hollow in whole or in part, and contained old nests of birds or mammal or insect… the contents will have to be repaired where necessary, and reassembled, insofar as possible, in their original order, including the shells of nuts already opened”). And so forth for paragraph after hallucinogenic paragraph: every single leaf is reattached, every single branch; tackle and scaffolding are hauled in so as to facilitate the final reattachment of the reconstituted bore to its stump, at which point the tackle and scaffolding start getting pulled away:

Finally the moment arrives when the last sustaining piece is re­moved and the tree stands again on its own. It is as though its weight for a moment stood on your heart. You listen for a thud of settlement, a warning creak deep in the intricate joinery. You cannot believe it will hold. How like something dreamed it is, standing there all by itself. How long will it stand there now? The first breeze that touches its dead leaves all seems to flow into your mouth. You are afraid the motion of the clouds will be enough to push it over. What more can you do? What more can you do?

But there is nothing more you can do.

Others are waiting.

Everything is going to have to be put back.

Columbian Oscar Muñoz (b.1951) can’t seem to get over the evanescence of even the most urgent memories. In one set of pieces consisting of circular mirrors arrayed along a wall at eye level, the visage of a disappeared victim only comes swimming into view by way of the exhaled breath of the peering viewer, and just as quickly commences to fade away. In another piece, across a series of plasma-screen projections, a brush-wielding hand emerges from the side and quickly proceeds to sketch out the face of yet another disappeared: it takes a few minutes before the mesmerized viewer comes to realize that the gray surface is in fact hot pavement, the portraying medium mere water, and already this face, too, is disappearing (yet again!), just as the hand emerges from the side of a neighboring screen, repeating the whole Sisyphean project all over again with yet another soon-to-disappear face.

Everything put back indeed. But surely the point is the leaves in question are dead and will never again not be dead, the clothes in the closet out of style and shabby, the angel’s face in Ago­sin’s poem just that, and only seemingly alive.

The challenge in these societies is to find a way of reclaiming the dead and honoring their presence in a manner that nonetheless still allows room for, indeed creates room for, the living. It is a challenge that, time and again, artists in Latin America have been appearing to meet and master. ✯

The Disappeared will be on view at the Museo del Barrio in New York from Feb­ruary 22 through June 17, 2007. A catalog, from which this material is drawn, is av­ailable for purchase at ndmoa.com.

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