Space for Warped Memory

Notes from Buenos Aires

Between 1976 and 1980, the Navy Mechanics School of Buenos Aires—better known as ESMA, its Spanish acronym—was a site of unspeakable terror. Its red-tile roof and unassuming stucco walls concealed a sprawling prison and elaborate torture facilities, all maintained with chilling precision by the military dictatorship of that era. Of the nearly 5,000 Argentines detained at ESMA, a mere 150 survived. The rest were “desaparecido”—a form of the Spanish verb “to disappear” that continues to conjure nightmarish images here—by government operatives who murdered their victims by drugging them, flying them over the Atlantic, and dropping their bodies under the cover of night. Meanwhile, in speech after speech and interview after interview, the regime denied the existence of anything but classrooms and dorms at ESMA.

Today, visitors who pass through ESMA’s doors are greeted by a set of glass doors that muffle the thumping rhythm of a subwoofer. Inside, a cavernous white chamber houses a makeshift jail cell dotted with steel-barred windows. Feel-good music from the 1970s blares from a speaker system overhead, and pulsing neon lights shoot from corner to corner. Overhead, a projector beams out a single word in bolded, multi-colored script: “Indifference.”

This exhibit is the first in Buenos Aires’ new Space for Memory and the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a collection of visual art and film that engages Argentina’s painful past.  It makes a powerful opening statement: that the military dictatorship that oversaw the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s came to power because the vast majority of Argentines wanted it to. It also suggests that, when evidence began to mount that the regime was responsible for horrific human rights violations, too many Argentines remained indifferent. While nightclub goers may not have looked out over political prisons as they danced, the analogy is rather apt. ESMA itself is located on Libertador Avenue, the most prominent of Buenos Aires’ promenades. Thousands of porteños would have walked within just a few hundred yards of its torture chambers on their way to work every day, utterly unaware of the building’s true purpose.

But while this opening exhibit and others address the way that indifference abets political evil, other exhibits at the Space for Memory engage the more interesting question of how human memories of traumatic political events can be warped over time. In a long hall of documentary screening rooms, one film shows a series of interviews with members of an extended family who recall the imprisonment and torture of their now-deceased male relative. For how long was he imprisoned? His son, a toddler at the time, insists it was five years. His nephew is sure that it was just two. His granddaughter wonders if perhaps there were two separate imprisonments, one for two years and the other for three. These and other questions dominate the simple film, which ends with the entire family gathered around a dinner table, heatedly debating the facts of their beloved relative’s past. Human memory, these films remind us, is a feeble tool, and any attempt, however well-intentioned, to understand the past should be governed by that humbling observation.

Humility, though, is a quality that is lacking in some of the Space for Memory exhibits. Impressive as much of the facility is, its displays are tainted by several instances of jarring politicization. For example, some exhibits have clearly been designed to portray the current president, Cristina Kirchner, and her now-deceased husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, as the democratic saviors of Argentina. One wall is dominated by a now-famous photo of Néstor Kirchner overseeing the removal of a portrait of a former Argentine general from the Ministry of Defense. “Thank you, Nestor,” the captions reads. “By taking down one painting, you inspired a thousand more.”

The truth is that no Argentine government—Kirchnerista or otherwise—has successfully reckoned with the legacy of the Dirty War, and the question of what to do with ESMA has dogged the country for many decades. In 1998, President Carlos Menem ordered the entire complex destroyed, only to be overruled by the Supreme Court three years later. In 2007, the military at long last abandoned the space, but not before vandalizing many of the buildings. Slowly, non-profit groups and NGOs began agitating for various types of memorials and exhibits—modeling their proposals on those in place at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland and the well-received Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. But the result thus far is a work in progress. Ultimately, a successful “Space for Memory” should gain full autonomy from the Argentine administration, allowing a variety of artists to construct new understandings of a challenging past.

—Columnist Benjamin B. Wilcox can be reached at bwilcox@college.harvard.edu.

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