East City Art Reviews: Stephanie Mercedes Los Relicarios

By Miguel Resendiz on July 31, 2018
Stephanie Mercedes, Los Relicarios, installed at Open Society Foundations from 2017-2018, courtesy of VisArts.

A new exhibit at VisArts’ Gibbs Street gallery features an installation by Argentinian-American artist, Stephanie Mercedes, entitled Los Relicarios.[1]  In the gallery, hundreds of silver lockets hang from the ceiling, each lit by an LED light.  A single black and white photographic portrait lies inside some of the lockets, while others are empty.

The work is a tribute to an estimated 30,000 desaparecidos, people who “disappeared” during the Argentinian dictatorship that ruled from 1976-1983.[2]  During this period people considered dissidents by the government, and their children, were “disappeared”; a phenomenon of the so-called “Dirty War.”  Records later revealed that the government tortured and cruelly killed many of these people.  Even as the disappearances were occurring, a group of grandmothers and mothers participated in numerous protests against the dictatorship.  They later came to be known as the Abuelas y Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo).   During these protests, according to the artist, the grandmothers and mothers sang a variety of protest songs or chants while carrying lockets with images of the disappeared.   Some of them carried empty lockets because the extent of the disappearances was unknown.

Stephanie Mercedes, Los Relicarios, installed at VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery in 2018. Photo for East City Art by Miguel Resendiz.

This is the second iteration of the installation.  A smaller version—which included 30 lockets to represent the first mothers to protest in Buenos Aires—was first exhibited in a group show at Open Society Foundations in New York as part of Here We Are: Visual Resistance and Reclaiming Narratives.[3]  After the current iteration at VisArts, Mercedes plans to make an even larger installation, eventually including 2,540 lockets, one for each day of the dictatorship and the number of images she will include in a related photographic archive that she is building.

Stephanie Mercedes, Los Relicarios, installed at VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery in 2018. Photo for East City Art by Miguel Resendiz.

From a distance, the mass of hanging lockets and the LED lights that reflect off their silver backs create an attractive visual effect reminiscent of the hanging lights used in Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, perhaps specifically recalling Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009).[4]  Yet, the political implications of the work and the use of portraits of missing or murdered dissidents and children may more likely remind one of Ai Weiwei’s Trace (2014), a work that was on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2017.[5]  Weiwei’s installation included enlarged, pixelated portraits of political dissidents made with LEGOs.  The artist’s goal was to create a monument to these easily forgotten people whom he saw as heroes.  The portraits depicted people from all over the world, but strangely, Latin American dissidents were largely absent from his installation.  By contrast, Mercedes’ Los Relicarios offers a more focused view into the struggles of a currently less well-known moment in history: Argentina’s dictatorship and the related disappearances.  While both works offer an “Instagrammable” experience, Weiwei’s work seems more distant and concerned with spectacle, whereas Mercedes’ installation is more intimate, honest, and, to use her words, “close to the heart.”

Nevertheless, the visual components of Mercedes’ work are not quite moving by themselves.  It is the additional sound component of the work that leaves the greatest impact on the viewer.  Every few minutes an audio recording of the artist singing a protest song plays on loop. The song, the artist stated, was sung by the Abuelas y Madres de Plaza de Mayo.  On the recording, overlapping voices sing at a high pitch. Without knowing what the words are, the voices sound haunting, like spirits wailing and asserting their existence.  The chant is as follows: “nunca, nunca, nunca, paramos; siempre, siempre, siempre, luchamos” (roughly translated to “never, never, never, will we stop; always, always, always, we will fight”).  Even if one does not understand the words, the melody of the chant is simple enough that a visitor may find himself hearing it in his mind long after having seen the installation.  The audio helps the work leave a lasting impression; an evocative memory of an experience that allows the viewer some connection to both the pain and the determination of the women protesters.

The artist’s studio recreated for Stephanie Mercedes’ Los Relicarios while installed at VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery in 2018. Photo for East City Art by Miguel Resendiz.

During her artist’s talk at VisArts, Mercedes mentioned her interest in alternative methods of protest.  In the back corner of VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery, Mercedes recreated her studio.  There, the artist’s notebook lies on a desk and is open to a page with a series of questions she was pondering while conceiving this installation:

“How can protest be female?

How can methods of protest be female?

How were the methods of protest female during the Argentine Dictatorship?”

Her fascination with the female and maternal form of protest is evident in the delicate orchestration of the attributes that make up the installation.

The work itself could also be considered a form of protest. Los Relicarios is part of a much larger project titled “Luz del Día: Copyrighting the Light of Day.”  Inspired by a comment made by Jorge Videla, the leader of the Argentinian dictatorship, referring to information about the disappearances “not appear[ing] in the light,” Mercedes will alter and then re-copyright some of the only surviving images of this period.  The Argentinian government is currently in the process of passing a bill that would retroactively extend copyright protections for images “from 20 years after publication to 70 years after the photographer’s death.”[6]  Many of the photographs are in the public domain and were taken by some of the disappeared; this new law would make many of the documentary photographs of the period inaccessible.  By adhering to other components of Argentinian copyright law, and altering the re-photographed images in four ways, Mercedes will be able to claim ownership of the altered versions.[7]  She will then place them in a public archive so that others will have access to her versions of the images, while the originals remain hidden by the government.

Stephanie Mercedes, Los Relicarios, installed at VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery in 2018. Photo for East City Art by Miguel Resendiz.

As noted above, lockets are called relicarios in Spanish, perhaps because lockets are reliquaries in the sense that they are containers of sacred relics from a historical moment.  In the VisArts gallery, lockets hold precious photographs, their lids absent, so they can be seen unobstructed, in the light, defiantly existing as relics from a past that might be erased.  Mercedes’ installation may one day become a relic, but in the present, it offers a touching memorial to the disappeared and to the actions of their mothers and grandmothers.  In her bold, yet gentle, presentation of historical imagery, Mercedes also gives viewers an alternative to the assertive and loud forms of protests that immediately come to mind when one wants to dissent from government action.  At a time when there are a growing number of protests in the U.S., citizens might worry about what happens when that anger and energy dissipates, and people have to return to their daily lives.  Los Relicarios reminds us that there are more sustainable and subtle methods of resistance that can exist without our constant physical presence.

[1]  In Spanish the word means both locket and reliquary; a container for a sacred object.

[2]  The number 30,000 is the most commonly used estimate, for a breakdown of the estimate see: Uki Goñi, “Blaming the victims: dictatorship denialism is on the rise in Argentina,” March 2016, The Guardian, theguardian.com, accessed July 2018.

[3]  See more about the exhibition here: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/announcing-24th-moving-walls-exhibit-here-we-are-visual-resistance-and-reclaiming-narratives

[4]  See Dr. Claudia Rousseau’s East City Art review of the Infinity Mirrors exhibition here: https://www.eastcityart.com/reviews/reflections-yayoi-kusama-infinity-mirrors/

[5]  For images, see: https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/ai-weiwei-trace/

[6]  Maira Sutton, “Argentina Proposes a 100-Year-Plus Copyright Extension on Photography,” October 2015, Electronic Frontier Foundation, eff.org, accessed July 2018.

[7]  Rebecca Rafferty, “The creative dissent of Stephanie Mercedes,” March 2017, CITY Newspaper, rochestercitynewspaper.com, accessed July 2018.

Los Relicarios is on view at VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery through August 12, 2018.  VisArts is located at 155 Gibbs Street, Rockville, MD, 20850 and the Gibbs Street Gallery is on the first floor.  For more information click here.