Remembering Trauma

Every crisis may be different but they all produce victims.

If we remember crises in an attempt to not repeat them, what should be remembered: the crisis itself or the victims?

Museums, memorials, artwork and history lessons are a few of the ways that memories of crisis are passed on from generation to generation or from culture to culture. So if those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, how can memory be used to prevent more suffering?

Marianne Hirsch came to speak in the SUNY New Paltz Coykendall Science Auditorium about the way that the medium of  history can influence memory. In her Oct. 8 talk titled “Small Acts: Mobilizing Memory Across Borders,” Hirsch looked at different museums and memorials around the globe and compared their memory arousal to that of select works of art, with similar intent.

She is William Peterfield Trent, professor of English and comparative literature and professor in the Institute or Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University, as well as vice president of the Modern Language Association of America. Her lecture was the keynote address of the two-day Translating Memory and Remembrance Across the Disciplines Conference, hosted by SUNY New Paltz’s Conversations in the Disciplines Program.

“We can use memory as a nationalist endeavor,” Hirsch said at the beginning of her talk.

She explained that memories of crisis could be used to spark movements and how art acting as theoretical objects can bring about that memory for good.

Hirsch first showed a vertical, cryptic etching by Mirta Kupferminc that was turned into a nine minute animated film called “En Camino” or “On the Way.”

Kupferminc is an Argentinian artist and teacher with exhibits all over the world, many of which are a memorial of some sort. This etching depicts people walking on uneven ground holding large trees or many belongings, symbolizing the very heavy burden left on immigrants forced from their home.

This work of art is emblematic of a pain and a weight that no person should be forced to possess. The trees rise up so tall just as their past towers over them, but they are walking towards a new life nonetheless.

In regards to Kupferminc’s work, Hirsch said, “[Kupferminc] is able to find ways to move forward and give a new future without escaping the past.”

The next artist Hirsch introduced was Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, a descendant of an Armenian genocide survivor and also a native Argentinian. The work Hirsch chose is called “The Texture of Identity.” It is not one single work but many all made with the same method; pictures that those in a crisis carried with them or pictures of items they had are blown up on translucent material and then woven into a wool tapestry which is hung.

The artist’s webpage describing these works says, “Silvina Der-Meguerditchian deals with the trauma of expulsion by calling it by name and making it the focus of her art. She does not accuse, she experiences no hatred, on the contrary. Being to finally define what once happened gives her a way of building a bridge from the victims to the perpetrators over an impossible gulf.”

Hirsch ended off her lecture by sharing her experience when she visited the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, where thousands of Jews were forced to live during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the museum chronicles 1,000 years of history. She said that while other memorial museums recuperate the past, this one is different because it stood as a reminder of all the bad and a reinforcement of the good.

She said she was surprised to find all the exhibits in Warsaw truly moved her and were a good resemblance of the history — and the memories they created stuck with her.

Memory is a powerful entity and can be mobilized for good if the medium is right. Art is a universal language unlike any other that can penetrate one’s memory and their empathy no matter their nationality.