March 24th was Argentina’s Dia Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y Justicia (National Memorial Day for Truth and Justice), a holiday which takes place every year on the anniversary of the 1976 military coup that brought the “Dirty War” regime to power. The following Saturday, Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria, a monumental park devoted to preserving the memory of the dictatorship’s “disappeared” victims, inaugurated its new exhibition space with Memorial, an installation by the German-born, Uruguayan-raised, New York-based artist Luis Camnitzer. Memorial sticks the names of the approximately 300 Uruguayans murdered by their own dictatorship of the same era back into the Montevideo phone book. I think the understated installation works very well as a complement to the much more traditionally monumental sculptures that dominate the park itself. (I’ve included photos of two of these below.)
I wrote about Camnitzer’s Memorial for Juanele; in fact, it was my first review for the site. I’ve copied the write-up below; you can also read and comment on the article on Juanele’s website.
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Great art raises more questions than it resolves. But that doesn’t mean it can’t answer one every once in a while. Luis Camnitzer knows this. So when the curator of Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria asks, “Can the pages of a phone book become a place of memory,” Camnitzer doesn’t just reflect on the question. He answers it.
Camnitzer’s Memorial, on display in Parque de la Memoria’s new Sala PAyS, transforms the Montevideo phone book into a commemorative locus by re-inserting into its alphabetized pages the names of Uruguayans forcibly disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 300 Uruguayans were disappeared by the regime in their own country over 13 years of military rule (1973-85). Cooperating closely with Argentina’s own dictatorship, the Uruguayan military also arranged for the kidnapping and execution of an unknown number of political exiles living across the Rio de la Plata in Argentina.
It is a difficult subject close to Camnitzer’s heart. Although the German-born Uruguayan citizen has spent most of his career in the United States as a professor at the State University of New York, much of his best work has focused on the legacies of Southern Cone dictatorships and the manner in which the devastation they wrought has been remembered, or obscured. Even his more conceptual work, Camnitzer has said, is political: “In the sense of wanting to change society.”
The concept art that Camnitzer has contributed to the permanent collections of venerated institutions like MOMA and the Met has earned him a reputation as an “artist’s artist,” a thinker who uses the conventions of art history to critique modern artistic practice. Yet for all of Camnitzer’s academic heft, his Memorial is not some esoteric exploration of the themes of loss and disappearance. It is a list of names on display in a space explicitly designed to promote personal reflection and collective commemoration: It’s as prototypical a cenotaph as they come.
A fully functional memorial, Camnitzer’s piece is also a reconfiguration of contemporary commemorative ritual. In late capitalist society, scholars of memory tell us, memory isn’t “alive” the way it used to be. We don’t lead our lives aware of the past in the same way our ancestors were, transmitting our histories orally and structuring every day according to the same religious rituals that guided our parents. Instead, we confine memories of people or events to specific places whose monumental architecture reminds us just how different those places are. (Think, for example, of the Libertador statue and Malvinas War memorial in Plaza San Martín.)
What is the opposite of Plaza San Martín? Something ordinary, something that we use every day without even a second thought. Something like a phone book. Leaving aside marble and bronze, Camnitzer roots memory in a totally quotidian object, one with no pretension to anything but utility. The manner in which he presents the pages of his alternate-history phone book — framed and arranged in neat rows, yes, but obviously photocopied, with gray blotches, stray marks, and seemingly accidental creases — only further underscores the ordinariness of Camnitzer’s memorial.
By placing the names of desaparecidos where they “should be” in the Montevideo phone book, Camnitzer reminds the viewer that these individuals were ripped from a very real place in the social fabric, and that as a result, Uruguayan society is different in countless ways — even in its telephone listings. We need not travel to a special site to remember this; we can do it by opening the phone book, too.
This is a highly savvy way for Memorial‘s host space, Parque de la Memoria’s Sala PAyS (Presentes Ahora y Siempre, Present Now and Always), to introduce itself to Buenos Aires. True, Memorial‘s physical presence in Sala PAyS is a bit awkward. Confined to the walls of the giant room, the work doesn’t take full advantage of the hall’s physical potential. Yet as the inaugural exhibit in Sala PAyS, Memorial accomplishes something more important — defining Sala PAyS as a space with a purpose related to but still separate from the rest of the park where it is housed.
Surrounded by monuments and symbolic reflections on the dictatorial past, Camnitzer’s work argues that Sala PAyS can be a bridge between commemoration and daily life, an invitation to think about what it means for those who have disappeared to be present — not simply in occasionally-visited, self-contained memory-sites — but always.