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Friday, July 6, 2012

Neverending Faces: A Brief Visit to La Plata, Argentina

© Shamoni Sarkar

Whoever thought absence could have such a presence in so many different ways? “Absence” is a word that Severo Sarduy uses repeatedly in La Simulación, his collection of essays on metaphor. The absence that he speaks of is the absence of a fixed essence, or a referent. He seems to be saying that our world is filled with copies, representations and re-representations that make us feel that we have lost track of their origins (or our origins). Then he goes on to make an even stronger statement: There is no origin; there never was.

Thinking about origins and absences reminded me of my day trip to the city of La Plata in Argentina in October 2011. La Plata is a city that was built for a purpose. By the late 1800s, Buenos Aires Province was expanding too quickly for the government to control. Buenos Aires City was at the time both the provincial and national capital, but this dual responsibility was gradually taking a toll on the distribution of administrative duties. The governor Dardo Rocha founded La Plata in 1882, naming it the new capital of Buenos Aires Province.

The city was one of the first few in the world to be “rationally planned”. Unlike other cities, it was not a space that grew and evolved organically. Instead, it was “built” from scratch on a large plot of previously barren land. The dimensions of the city were clearly mapped out. It was to be a uniform grid. Streets would not be named but numbered (streets in Buenos Aires are named after generals, politicians or other Latin American cities). There were to be small plazas with “espacios verdes” (green spaces) every six blocks. One long diagonal would cut across the city, while Street #32 would encircle it, forming its periphery. La Plata is sometimes popularly referred to as “The City of Jules Verne”. Some believe that its design was inspired by the utopian city France-Ville in Verne’s 1879 novel The Begum’s Fortune. In the story, public health and sanitation were priorities in the design of France-Ville. Like France-Ville, La Plata was to be a truly modern city— rationally ordered, clean, and existing for the good of the citizens only. The term coined in the 19th century for this kind of engineering was ‘hygienism’.

Sarduy speaks of the ideas of recreation and copy when he speaks of the Latin American Baroque. For example, in the art of the Americas, he says, one sees an attempt to assimilate the religious and mythological codes found in Spanish Renaissance painting and reproduce it as something different— something that transgresses the limits of the ‘original’. But the new work retains all the while evidence of the intent— of the struggle to break away. It retains the presence of what preceded it. Likewise, new urban utopias (like La Plata) and the incorporation of rationality too are forms of a Baroque ideal because they attempt to recreate. Although they do not seem to be influenced by the old, as is the art that Sarduy speaks of earlier, they nevertheless recreate themselves because they see the necessity to be something new, unshackled from history. Sarduy’s assertion that neither originals nor copies really exist seems strangely encouraging when seen in the context of the Latin American city. But if there is no original, what do we have? Sarduy thinks that all we have is ambiguity, struggle and incompletion. And he sees potential in incompletion— grey space for the creation of new things.

But as I walked down the streets of La Plata, the air felt different from the way it did in Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires’s grandeur and rustiness were natural and palpable. Remnants of Europe left in the architecture were given new life by the swagger of the city around it. In La Plata, I felt like I was walking through a slightly mythical space— space that existed in dimensions but whose physical presence one could not feel. Someone told me that La Plata was constructed as a city that did not change with the progression of time. Reading Sarduy on absence reminded me of my visit to this city because it seemed ‘absent’ in both space and time. But it wasn’t a sense of absence that pushed me away. Rather, I felt the urge to take in more. There was a sense there that could be touched and defined. I just had to come upon it suddenly.

According to Sarduy, portraiture and mimesis are ways for human beings to leave their imprint on the world; in portraits people tend to leave signs of what makes them human— dark eyes, the shape of the face, or ways of dressing. The canvas not only immortalizes the human form, but also gives it wholeness and a truth. But for Sarduy, the wholeness of form can never be reached. The only truth exists in hints and fragments. 

This idea that wholeness can never be achieved, and that our repeated attempts to assert our selves are futile made me wonder if the same could be said not just about Art but about cities as well. I could now look back on La Plata in a different light, and consider why I went there in the first place. One of the main clandestine torture centers during the years of the dictatorship in Argentina had been in this city. There is now a criminal court there that tries cases of human rights violations that occurred during those years. On that particular October day, I had gone to attend the witness testimony of María Isabel Chorobik de Mariani, the founder of the organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo). It was the first testimony in a trial that was going to last for the next several months. Mariani grew up in La Plata in a house of musicians and architects (creative people were the preferred target of the military, she told us). From the night of November 24th, 1976 onwards, she would go on to see the deaths of her son and daughter-in-law, and the disappearance of her granddaughter Clara Anahí. During the years that she searched for her grandchild, she founded the organization to help other women who were also searching for lost loved ones. She continues to search for Clara today. She put whatever energy she had left into the running of her organization so that other women could see that collectively, there was a way.

Strangely, I did not note down the names of the ‘accused’ that she named in her testimony, nor any other official details. I was too lost in the sound of the flow of her words. For most of the time, I felt like I was watching the staging of a tragi-comedy. Mariani had an extraordinary, matter-of-fact sense of humor, and it was as if she felt entitled to use it after having gone through so much without humor. Also ironically funny were the adolescent scribbles on the backs of the chairs that made everything seem so trivial. One of them said ‘Blink 182’, bringing back my boy-band memories, and then I looked around and realized that many others in the ‘audience’ were also part of the punk-rock generation. For a few seconds, I even felt like none of us had any right to be there. On the platform, I saw the 26 accused sitting on the far left, well-dressed, with calm faces, as if they had long retired from ordinary jobs. None of them stirred as Mariani narrated calmly the sequence of events of those years. She had her back to them, but there was very little space between her chair and their section of the platform. I was convinced that this part of the room was filled with the most anger and violence. At one point, Mariani had to pause after recounting to the jury (and to us) one of the more difficult parts of her testimony. The audience, who had so far been hypnotized by her composure and her incredible story, suddenly broke into applause, offering their admiration and encouragement to keep going. The policemen lining the front stirred, as if expecting us to start a riot. But calm ensued.

I had to leave early to go back to Buenos Aires— back to the real world of classes and chaos.

We were once told about the “logic of fear” adopted by the military government. I tried to figure out what this could mean. Was it that the environment of fear was so pervasive inside and outside the torture chambers that it had reached the point that no other way of controlling things was possible anymore? Were torturer and tortured locked in some kind of silent agreement that order would be maintained only through fear and obedience? And was this why it was logical? However, there was no logic in Mariani’s trial, but only a sense of theater, fragments of history, and the slightly unbelievable physical presence of those involved in that history. La Plata was a rational utopia that hosted an irrational, non-utopian event. What did it mean hosting trials from such an important period in history in La Plata in particular? Was it not a way for people to leave an imprint of themselves in a new space, to conserve traces of their history to give the new space a ‘truth’?

La Plata is the true Baroque city— it searches for a truth through order and rationality. Having a criminal court there is like painting a portrait of history, also to immortalize a truth. But perhaps Sarduy would say that even then it is still only constructed from diverse fragmentary representations from different times. But I think La Plata does receive a strange kind of wholeness by being so new while at the same time giving voice to the old. However, it is a wholeness that is unstable and could break up into fragments at any point. Despite this disconcerting sense, why did I still want to go back? Was it a perverse wish to be caught between the perfect grid and the imperfect history again? Or did I actually want to come away with something concrete and good?

I wouldn’t know, unless I went back.                  

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