Sixty-six human femurs form a 10-foot-tall outline of the Chilean flag. The earth brown of the bones creates a stark contrast within the sterile, well-lit space at SITE Santa Fe. From the door, the flag seems to be made from crumbling pieces of weather-beaten wood.
"Oh my goodness," a women says almost in a whisper as she approaches close enough to see the installation's true medium. Her eyes fix on the memorial by Chilean artist Arturo Duclos, created for the people who disappeared during the violent military rule of his country—an ironic government symbol made from the trail of dead of its own citizens.
Los Desaparecidos/The Disappeared at SITE Santa Fe is part of a massive collaborative effort between Santa Fe and Albuquerque art and film institutions focusing on a similar theme: Those gone missing, tortured and killed during the military dictatorships that controlled Latin America in the mid-20th century. The exhibition at SITE features multimedia works by 27 artists from seven countries, including Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Brazil and Guatemala, and each artist has a harrowing tale.
Duclos' mortality-flaunting installation gives an appropriate warning for the rest of the exhibit, as if saying, "You will encounter death here—tragic, needless, senseless death—and it will break your heart."
As quickly as the reality of the subject matter sets in, so does the amazing human ability to create touching and beautiful artwork from the dark ashes of mankind's most despicable moments. Luis Camnitzer's poetic series of 35 color photo etchings titled From the Uruguayan Torture Series/De la series de la Tortura Uruguaya displays pastel images of persecution, pain and death—soft on the eyes and heavy on the heart.
All the artwork in the exhibit demands attention, not necessarily because of its complexity but for its genuineness. Not one piece in any medium is distant or perplexing—some, in fact, fall just short of being heavy-handed—and the uniting cause remains boldly prevalent.
Perhaps the most literal depiction of the disappeared is Oscar Muñoz' Project for a Memorial/Proyecto por un Monumento. Muñoz videotaped himself painting faces of the dead with water on hot stone. Almost as soon as the face is finished, it starts to evaporate, leaving only a blank rock canvas. The videos are presented on five screens, Muñoz' hand always visible in one sketching a new face as the others fade or are already gone. Photo after photo of the dead can numb the viewer from their true meanings, but Muñoz’ presentation gives not only a glimpse of the victims, but a rich symbolism to their tragic fate.
Given the political nature of the subject, Los Desaparecidos/The Disappeared would be amiss without representing guerilla art from the streets. Brazilian Cildo Meireles took empty Coca-Cola bottles, imprinted "Yankee Go Home" in white letters and sent them back to the factory to be refilled. Meireles doesn't consider his actions art, but rather mementos of political action. Stille, how many political activists really think of themselves as artists?
Fernando Traverso knew 29 people who disappeared in his home town of Rosario, Argentina. For each person who vanished, an abandoned bicycle was found on the streets. To represent the disappeared citizens from his town, Traverso spray-painted 350 bicycles on walls throughout Rosario—a statement so subtle a tourist with no knowledge of the area's history could walk right past one and dismiss it as graffiti. Pictures of all 350 lined up side-by-side at SITE aren't as easy to pass by without feeling the magnitude of Traverso's statement.
The only thing absent from Los Desaparecidos/The Disappeared is a detailed historical account, either from the victims or the victimizers. But it's an art display, not a museum exhibit, and the individual experiences each artist presents are enough to piece together a terrifying time in Latin American history. "Oh my goodness" isn't nearly a descriptive enough phrase, but it might be the only one utterable once you catch your breath.
Los Desaparecidos/The Disappeared will be on display at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, 505-989-1199) through January 2008. For more information on The Disappeared Collaborative Project, visit www.thedisappearedsantefe.org.