Falk Gallery guest artist Stephanie Mercedes ties the Argentinian past to modern-day photoraphy and law in a variety of mediums
~Kristen Ziccarelli, A&E Editor~
It is often said that ‘an image holds a thousand words,’ and when learning about history, such a phrase is true to the fullest extent. But as one of the most powerful tools of remembrance, even photography is subject to censorship and suppression.
Through her long-time work as a photographer, archivist and researcher, Argentine-American artist Stephanie Mercedes has been able to combat a significant governmental effort to hide acts of genocide and human rights violations.
Inspired by pending Argentine law 2517-D-2015 proposing to extend the copyright of a photograph from 20 years after the creation date to 70 years after the death of the photographer, Mercedes’ exhibition insists that events from the Argentinian ‘Dirty War’ (1976-1983) must be seen and remembered.
Featuring 2,540 altered photographs for each day of the dictatorship, the exhibition entitled “Luz del Día: Copyrighting the Light of Day” ensures a record of images that under the legislation, would be privatized and inaccessible to the public. In order to expose them, Mercedes alters them in four significant ways so that she can re-copyright them and donate them back to the public domain.
In reference to Argentine dictator Gen. Jorge Videla’s comment that the death toll will “never see the light of day,” Mercedes’ exhibition is an effort to archive images “safe from the law and saved from the law.”
The exhibition is staged in a dimly-lit setup with a backlit image inside a large, metal locket and a studio in the back corner. The locket serves to connect the second part of the exhibition, entitled “Los Relicarios.”
After being moved by women who marched and sung in the streets against the disappearance of their loved-ones, Mercedes incorporated the motif of a locket into her series.
“I think it really comes down to the power of motherhood and the strength that that gave them,” Mercedes said. “A lot of mothers and grandmothers would use the locket as a way to protest, and I love that because I think that a locket is an object of love – it’s an object of care, of intimacy of empathy.”
The metal locket which stands at the center of the instillation is the exact size of 30,000 small lockets, representing the 30,000 people that disappeared during the dictatorship. By tying the photographs and lockets together, Mercedes represents the women’s role in protesting the military regime.
“To use something that is so delicate and caring as a political tool that became an effective political tool and an object of care to speak to power is amazing,” Mercedes said.
The installation includes a musical component as well, where Mercedes is singing the women’s protest songs.
“It’s very delicate and very sweet but also very haunting,” Mercedes said. “It’s a very female way of protesting and it’s an expression of soft power but very effective soft power.”
Walking into the exhibition, the music and lights are apparent but the staged studio introduces the collection of photos, her equipment, a variety of books, pictures, poems and more. The studio portion highlights her practice of archiving and artistry, while also setting up the historical context for the exhibit.
“Every time I normally show work, I set up a fake studio,” Mercedes said. “It puts a little context into my practice and also the intensity and the darkness of the history that I work with.”
Purposely located in the back of the room, Mercedes’ studio is meant to be encounter with history and context, but not absolutely imperative to connect with the work.
“As you come into the back space, there’s an entire studio here and it’s up to you if you want to read things and look at images if you do than you’ll understand the context of the work and if you don’t that’s your prerogative,” Mercedes said. “It’s your decision if you want to stop and look into the eyes of history or not.”
Aside from emotionally connecting to art, Mercedes underscored the importance of historical remembrance and the idea that the fight is never over.
“I truly believe that even though it didn’t happen to my generation, the fight will always be continued no matter how long ago or how recently it happened,” Mercedes said.
Through her trips to Argentina, Mercedes has seen how trauma still greatly affects individuals today.
“Because it wasn’t a war and it was a genocide where bodies were never found its incredibly difficult for the country to reconcile the past and the family member’s experience,” Mercedes said. “It’s difficult to talk about because people don’t talk about it.”
After talking with a citizen whose brother disappeared during the regime, she interviewed him for her oral archives and wanted to meet with him in person.
“He looked at me, and said in Spanish, ‘thank you, thank you so much for caring, I had no idea the younger generation cared,’ and that’s why I do what I do,” Mercedes said. “There’s no better reason for me to do what I do.”
“History must be a chain of unions, stronger than frustration, than war, and even death.” – Stephanie Mercedes
“One of the reasons why disappearances were so traumatic is there was never a body. Because there was never a body, there is this idea that you can never stop mourning and you can never forgive and you can never reconcile.” – Stephanie Mercedes