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Anne-Sophie Garcia | Spectral Pasts: The Temporality of Historical (In)justice in Latin American Contemporary Art

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My doctoral dissertation examines contemporary art in Latin America that addresses the conflict between time and justice, both under past dictatorial and current democratic regimes. Post-conflict societies experience a past felt as inevitably fleeting yet stubbornly lingering, and while trauma studies have often associated this resistance of the past to trauma and mourning, recent studies also insist on the importance of a political stance of social justice and human rights, in particular when addressing the conflicts of the last quarter of century and considering the implications of truth and reconciliation processes.

The objective of this research is to demonstrate how contemporary art contributes to understand the nature and the implications of this fleeting yet stubborn past. I identify and analyze a select group of contemporary artists who expose a “crisis of the past” informed by a pervasive sentiment of injustice. The selected artworks seek to translate the profound fragility of life, the evanescence of memory, while insisting on the spectral and obstinate nature of the past. The both transient and stubborn qualities of the mediums chosen by these artists (light, water, and sound) translate aesthetically the discrepancy of the past influenced by an anxiety related to a fear of oblivion and a relentless call for justice.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Latin American countries experienced a cycle of violence emerging from the context of the Cold War and under different frameworks: civil wars, military dictatorships, and authoritarian regimes. As of the mid-1980s and under transitional justice processes, there was a resurgence of the struggles pertaining to clarifications in terms of the violence perpetrated and on the victims’ whereabouts, whereas the prosecution of offenders was often dismissed in favor of national reconciliation and political stabilization. These stakes are also compelling when considering experiences of current violence under democratic regimes in the continent because of the governments’ inability to respond to pervasive violence and to ensure social equality and justice for its citizens.

Taking into account how this political and social context is marked by impunity, and how it influences the perception of the passage of time, the present research is articulated around the following claims:

1/These artworks deploy a liminal space of an unresolved past that articulates the fragility of memories of violence, and acts as a potential site for empathic engagements with a history of suffering. It proposes a spatial expansion of these issues, gauged through an embodied experience that unfolds over time, and with such, it invites an awareness of how to exist within a world shaped by violence.

2/ Furthermore, I suggest these artworks invite consideration of the effects of violence in its social and political incidences rather than as subjective phenomenon related to trauma. It stresses on an ethical imperative and calls upon art’s capacities to contribute actively in inspiring a sense of responsibility and community.

3/ Finally, I propose these practices invite a deeper reflection on the nature of historical time in the twenty first century, and call for an alternative chronosophy that reevaluates the traditional associations of past with absence and present with presence, and thus invite a modern consideration of this “spectral past.”

In my investigation on the nature of the “spectral past,” I turn to the Derridean deconstruction of metaphysics of presence and philosophy of responsibility and justice, as well as to recent studies by Berber Bevernage and Avery Gordon that reevaluate the Derridean views in the light of recent conflicts. My discussion is also informed by the moral philosophy of Vladimir Jankélévitch and his inquiry on the temporality of forgiveness, and in particular his consideration on the both ontological nature and contingency of time. Finally, in order to approach the stance of the spectator when facing artworks of this nature, I draw mainly on Jacques Rancière, Jill Bennett, and Judith Butler’s views on how the modern aesthetic experience calls for an ethical imperative of collective responsibility.

 This dissertation is comprised of four chapters:

- A first chapter is dedicated to a literature review that demonstrates a shift within the humanities and social sciences: while trauma and mourning have previously laid the theoretical-methodological framework to explain the “spectral past,” this approach is revealed insufficient to analyze recent conflicts, and research is therefore shifting towards considerations of social justice and human rights.

- The second chapter examines works concerned with the implications in terms of time and justice in the aftermath of the dictatorship that affected Chile from 1973 to 1990, and in particular the political assassinations and disappearances of individuals. Geometry of Conscience (2010) a permanent installation by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, and the documentary Nostalgia for the Light (2010) by Patricio Guzmán, both probe in distinct ways how light and the temporality of vision informs the temporality of an evanescent memory and the quest for justice.

- Contrary to chapter 2 which examined cases of historical justice in relation to dictatorship, chapter 3 focuses exclusively on cases of urban violence and civil war in democratic regimes through the work of Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz and Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. These artists investigate the relation between time and justice through their use of water, by contrastingthe forces to preserve it in its liquid state, with the threat of evaporation and disappearance.

- Finally, chapter 4 is dedicated to the work of Argentinean artist Jorge Macchi. By examining the finitude and fragility of sound, its persistence with reverberation and echoes, and by connecting sound’s properties of lingering and vanishing with those of light and text, his work reveals an intrinsic bond, the fundamental interrelatedness of human existence and anchors a discussion of these notions in a perspective of historical justice.