IMAGINATION TO POWER
POR ANNE TUCKER
Marcelo Brodsky, an artist and human rights activist, works with images and documents of specific events to investigate broader social, political, and historical issues and actions. He wants viewers to be aware of historic moments, some of which shaped him, his family and many of his friends. Most specifically, like many in his generation in Argentina, he was attacked during the military dictatorship that in a seven year reign of terror was responsible for the torture and death of between ten and thirty thousand Argentine citizens, including Brodsky’s younger brother, Fernando. Brodsky escaped the military’s grasp and lived in exile until the dictatorship was overthrown in 1983. While personal experiences instigate and shape his artistic impulses, educating audiences and the hope of preventing others from experiencing such terror are stronger motivations.
To make the selected moments and their consequences more accessible to broad audiences, he approaches the material from various angles. Constant throughout his art is a deep understanding of the potential power of photographs, both at the moment of their creation as news and, for some, a long subsequent life in publications and memories. For decades, Brodsky owned and directed a photo agency with offices throughout Latin America. Its success depended in part on his awareness of which pictures would engage broad international audiences. He also understands using picture sequences in which the perception of a single image changes when it is paired or sequenced with other images. He also understands and employs texts in concert with the images to direct his audiences’ perceptions, even when the words are seemingly neutral. Passionate and determined, Brodsky has no intentions of being neutral.
He learned to photograph while in exile in Spain and includes in this exhibition works made in that first lonely year. Even then, he broadened the context of a seemingly playful self-portrait, making a reference to his own near execution by standing against a wall in San Felipe Neri Square in Barcelona in which General Francisco Franco shot Republican patriots during the Spanish Civil War. At times, he employs others’ photographs, such as his father’s 8mm film of his sons playing war with bows and arrows, which was made long before the “Dirty War” or its hideous consequences were imaginable. When placed in the context of the other works in the show, this innocent piece is redirected from a sweet memory of youthful exercise to the separation of the brothers after Fernando was kidnapped and disappeared by the military dictatorship in 1979.
In other works that incorporate photographs by other photographers, he has been careful to license the rights. Access to those images enables him to address parallel and interrelated international events.
Brodsky’s most famous work is Buena Memoria, created in 1996, but taken in 1967, at his class reunion at Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. By considerably enlarging it and writing texts across the figures, he forcefully compresses time between then and now. On top of their teenage bodies and faces, the words identify who was kidnaped and killed, who went into exile, who was mentally “damaged” by the military junta, and who live seemingly untouched lives.
In two other works, Brodsky anchors Argentina’s history to that of other countries. I Pray with My Feet features images of two important rabbis, both of whom were celebrated civil rights defenders. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel was an esteemed theologian and professor at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, was Herschel’s student and personal secretary, before moving to Argentina in 1959. Brodsky links Herschel’s active role in the sixties civil rights marches in the US with Meyer’s persistently criticizing the Argentine government, speaking out for the “disappeared,” and comforting their families during the Dirty War.
In 1968, the Fire of Ideas Brodsky again features students and binds events in Argentina with the worldwide social turbulence in the late 1960s. U.S. protesters participate in the Poor People´s march in Washington D.C., conceived by Martin Luther King a few months before his assassination; protests in London rail against the Vietnam War. In Bogotá, Mexico City, Córdoba, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, workers and students campaign together against military regimes and other governmental structures. They are shown with linked arms, billowing flags and banners, exercising massive street action to claim for their demands. The piece also includes recorded excerpts of speeches by Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Daniel Cohn Bendit, Herbert Marcuse, and Agustin Tosco, whose ideas and actions fueled many of the protesters.
A banner in the Parisian demonstration on display included a cry for “L’imagination au pouvoir” (power to the imagination). Rather than the call for “speaking truth to power,” that rang in other demonstrations of the era, the Parisians call for the end to all limits, including those on the imagination.
However, Brodsky is more practical. He doesn’t want to release the imagination from all restraints, but to empower its being used against corrupt and brutal power. Whether he charges us to learn and never forget past atrocities, to honor righteous leaders, or as in his most recent campaign, to keep the pressure on authorities to solve and prosecute recent unsolved mass murders. The current cause is on behalf of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico who disappeared on September 26, 2014. For this project, he returned to the class photo motif, asking students around the world to pose in bleacher like settings holding a sign acknowledging their support for the “truth” to be found about the students’ deaths or imprisonment. He wanted to make the students aware, both of the issues and of their capacity to protest, and has subsequently organized an exhibition and book of their photographs to keep the issue alive.