In the Presence of Absence - editorial by
“The disappearance seems to be not only a vanishing
but also a need to fill the gap with something different,
perhaps the opposite of what is gone”.
Jean Genet (1)
We know, a photograph taken off the wall leaves a mark behind: a white square on a white background. A person steps out the room and the half-opened door turns into the spatial marker of a temporal threshold, the caesura between an ante-absence and an after-presence. A page ripped off the book persists in the ragged paper filaments hanging on the bundle of sheets, in the stuttering gap interrupting the flow of words and the numerical sequence of folios.
Absences are present. We can feel, perceive, sense them quite distinctively. We may say that absences have a phenomenology of their own, usually manifesting in an inventory of traces, in the shape of a negative mirroring, or in the sudden disturbance of a perception of continuity by the discontinuous irruption of a removal. Yet, their elusive status makes of them an object difficult to pin-down, define or represent. In the end, are they even objects, or just the empty spots left behind by the objects withdrawal, the wounds of a lack? Every time we try to determine them ontologically, or to express them in words, we need to recur to the grammatical mode of the negative and the rhetorical device of comparison. Absences are not just what there is not, but rather what was there and now is not any longer, or what should be there and yet is not – these connotations adding the importance of a temporal fluctuation or immoral omission.
Just as there is a phenomenology and an ontology, so there is also a political and social history of absences, an history usually associated with violence and repression. Absent from the chronicles of History are the losers, the un-represented minorities, clandestines and undocumented immigrants, people abducted and made to disappear by the violence of state or para-military organizations.
Disappeared bodies, undocumented subjects and stolen objects pose serious problems to the practice of representation and the act of remembrance, while making these imperatives all the most poignant and necessary. How can one preserve something that is not there anymore, or was never there in the first place? How is it possible to preserve the memory of something that has vanished or was made to vanish? And, perhaps most importantly, how are we going to preserve in the fabric of memory the very act of disappearance? It does not seem enough to simply fill what Hannah Arendt calls 'holes of oblivion', deceptively restoring a lost whole. It's rather necessary to find aesthetic and representative strategies able to signal the very existence of the holes, the blind spots and gaps, the emptied spaces. In other words, one should be able to report on the presence of absences.
On the morning of 21st September 1983, Buenos Aires woke up with its walls, monuments and trees covered with paper silhouettes of human bodies. The event, also known as Siluetazo, was part of a protest organized by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers formed in 1977 to draw awareness to the disappearance of their sons and daughters during the Argentinian dictatorship of 1976-83. In the course of the improvised, outdoor workshop that took place the night before and lasted until well past midnight, the demonstrators lay down in the Plaza de Mayo, offering their bodies for others to trace and outline. As Eduardo Grüner recalls, silhouettes offered a possibility to represent the disappeared:
that is, not simply what is 'absent' - for all representation is, by definition, a representation of an absent object - but rather, what is intentionally made absent, that which has been made to disappear through some form of material or symbolic violence; in this case, the representation of the bodies of the disappeared by a systematic policy or a conscious strategy. (2)
The silhouettes became an instrument to register political violence and repression. They were also a substitute for the missing body, without ever pretending to replace it, but rather drawing attention to its absence and making this present and tangible.
“In the presence of absence” is the title of Mahmood Darwish's second last book of poems, a self-elegy that the famous Palestinian poet wrote two years before dying. The absence he talks about in the book is both the absence of a country, physically and spiritually close yet made unavailable by foreign occupation, and the absence of the poet himself, who retrospectively looks back at his life from the standpoint of an imminent death. Darwish and his family were forced to leave their ancestral home in 1948 when he was only seven years old. That moment marks the beginning of an exilic life spent recording into existence an obliterated homeland, its people, and himself. Darwish returned eventually to his mother country – now called Israel – as a designated “present-absentee,” and it is this constant presence of absence – of a homeland, of self-determination, or even the legitimate right to exist – that he relentlessly tries to register in words. Darwish teaches us that to live in the presence of absence is the most difficult task of all: it means to produce a constant effort of tightrope walking on the verge of an obliteration which comes either as forgetfulness or total self-deceptive presence. The trick is not to lose the sense of loss, to keep alive the constant memory of absence itself and maintain open the painful gap of the lack.
In Tibet, possessing an image of his Holiness the Dalai Lama is illegal to date. Forced to remove his picture from the walls, Tibetan families start to venerate the white square, the negative silhouette left by the imposed withdrawal. Painting the wall, in this condition, would be to erase the absence. They seem to suggest instead that to live in the presence of absence is a way of never losing sight of the white square on the white wall, of the half-opened door or of the paper threads of a ripped page.
Co-Founding Director of Mnemoscape
( 1 )
Jean Genet, The Prisoner of Love, New York Review of Books, New York, 2003.
( 2 )
Eduardo Grüner, 'La invisibilidad estratégica, o la redención política de los vivos: Violencia política y representación estética en el Siglo de las Desapariciones', in Ana Longoni and Gustavo Bruzzone (ed.), El Siluetazo, Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2008, p. 285