ROCKVILLE, MD: Stephanie Mercedes is an Argentinian American artist who combines law and social justice into her scope of work. Her stunning, visceral exhibit, Los Relicarios, was a recent feature piece at VisArts in Rockville, Maryland.
The exhibit features hundreds of illuminated silver lockets which hang from the ceiling. Some lockets are empty, some include a portrait photograph inside. A solemn solo vocal song also accompanies the exhibit, really accentuating the strong emotions tied to this piece.
The following is an interview describing the work, and the haunting and repressed incident in time in Argentinian history this exhibit distinctly archives.
So here we are in your exhibit space- Can you explain to me what we have going on?
Yes, we are at my exhibit at VisArts in Rockville. The show is Los Relicarios. In Spanish this means “lockets” but the direct translation is “a relic.” I decided to name this solo show Los Relicarios because the entire exhibit is a large scale immersive installation. It is a tribute to the mothers, now grandmothers, who protested during the Argentinian dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. A time in which the right-wing military regime killed approximately 30,000 people, but they were not so much killed, as they just ‘disappeared.’
The mothers were the first people to really speak out against the military regime. I think a lot of that is attributed to the power of motherhood. One of their methods of protest would include a locket. Lockets, which you know, are something that it’s incredibly intimate and delicate.
The indelible imagery of a locket
A locket is something that you wear of your loved one, normally touching your skin, undershirt. They would protest in the streets, either wearing them or holding them in their hands of their children who were disappeared. I really love that gesture because not only is it something that they still do, but it’s also thinking about a methodology of protest which is incredibly feminine.
I think a lot of people think of protests as something that is very, is very aggressive, maybe it’s very male, its something that has to be big and very loud, but no. They were able to take something that is actually a representation of the internal, and expresses it externally, and use that as a way and as a method of speaking to the people of power.
So, explain the set up of your exhibit
So, the installation that we’re in is suspended lockets and each one has a tiny LED light in it, so they’re also tiny light boxes. About half of the lockets have transparent images of people who disappeared during the dictatorship. The other half are missing an image. This is because a lot of times the grandmothers would protest using empty lockets, because that is the very violence of disappearance, no visual representation. And then another part of the art installation that we’re in is that I took the original chorus and protest songs that the grandmothers used to sing and still do sing, and I’m re-singing it.
The translation from Spanish of what I’m saying is “we will always, always fight, we will never, ever forget.
Yes, that’s intense
Yes, and that slogan is really important to the ethos of this history because this is a violence that can never be reconciled with, because the bodies we never found. It’s something that even though I didn’t experience it, those before me did, and if I have children, then they will also have to continue the fight because of something that will never be forgiven. I think that’s incredibly important, to also thinking about the relationship between history, the contemporary moment and the projected future. Right?
Does this piece connect to a larger project, or have any other parts to it?
Yes, this installation is part of a much larger part of my practice which is called Luz del Dia, “Copyrighting The Light of Day.” That project is in reaction to pending copyright legislation which, if passed, would make a lot of the photographic archives from that period of time inaccessible to the larger public.
So what I’m doing is I’m building a photographic archive of 2,540 images which are drawn from personal, private, sometimes public, sometimes academic archives of the dictatorship which I am then altering. And after the legislation is passed, I will personally copyright it and donate it back into the public domain.
Luz del Dia – The light of day
So I’m essentially building a photographic archive, which is both saved by the law and safe from the law and it’s called Luz del Dia, Copyrighting The Light of Day, because I always think about images as relationships of light, which is also why I like to work with light boxes a lot.
There is a very famous moment in which Henry Kissinger, who was a US Secretary of State during the dictatorship, basically made an inquiry to someone who was one of the dictators in Argentina at the time. And said, “How many people do you think, at this period of time, that you’ve killed? And the dictator responded, “It doesn’t matter because it will never see the light of day. This information will never see the light of day.”
So, I thought, oh my God, that is such a metaphor for, not only the way I think about photography, but also the fact that this history, even though, it happened quite recently, even though it was incredibly traumatic, it has really been in the dark and it needs to be exposed to the light. So that is why the piece is called Los Relicarios and my larger project is called Luz del Dia, Copyrighting the Light of Day.
So, does your family have any personal connection to this?
Yes actually, I’m Argentinian-American. My mother is American. My father is Argentinian. I have three siblings in the United States, two siblings in Argentina. I realized through a series of events that made me feel like the Argentinian Dictatorship wasn’t just history but something I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to making artwork about.
I think it really just made me want to understand that history more because all of sudden, I learned about this personal connection. It made me feel like it wasn’t history, it was something that connected to my family and therefore connected to my own experiences. I will always remember it because, my father pulled me aside and he said, “Oh my God, please do not make artwork about this. Whatever you do, do not make artwork.”
I thought at that moment, okay, I really want to dedicate the rest of my life to this topic.
Civil Wars equal violence
But, I also think that for a lot people, I think that when there is a civil war and when there is violence, like the violence that happened in the late ’70s, early ’80s in southern Latin America, and in Argentina during La Junta, it’s really terrifying. I think that part of the continuation of that violence is that it’s a form of psychological warfare.
So, a lot of times, people who survive during the period of time, they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to think about that. As a result, maybe they’re not necessarily passing on the information to the next generation, because it’s too much.
I’m not saying that in a way to be critical in any means because I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been experiencing the violence of that era. But, I think a lot of times of my work, post memory generation. What does it mean for me to be making this work, even though I didn’t necessarily experience the violence, but it’s still something that’s very much connected to a culture that I’m part of and connected to a family that I’m a part of.
So yes, art can definitely be used as a form of protest. Did you try to frame the context of this piece to bring out the element of protest, or were you just trying to archive the time period?
No. I think that this exhibit is very much intentionally thinking about methodologies of protest, which I think is extremely important because, of course, this work is about a culture and a continent and a history that is very far from the United States.
But, at the same time, it’s deeply connected. I think a lot of people who are coming into the exhibit are probably thinking of methods of protest in 2018 being in D.C. or being in the United States. What I wanted to do in this exhibit is to think about methods of protest which are not usual.
So, how can wearing a locket, how can singing on a daily basis in the streets or in your home, still be a form of protest? How can a protest be just as effective but through it’s methodologies, and through it’s symbolism, be also intensely vulnerable?
How can you use that intense, emotional, personal vulnerability as a way to speak out against those who are in power and against those who are imposing the violence upon you and your family members.
Art as an archive of life
I also think that a big part of my practice is thinking about legally intervening into archives and thinking about how I can combine art and law, and actually create real effective change through my artwork, which will have an effect on public access to archives. I think a lot of times, people think about protests and they think about art, and they put them into two separate categories. Or people think about, okay, people who are creating actual change, so let’s say lawyers or maybe archivists and activists, and they think about artists separate from there.
In my practice, I really want to think about not only how can I create a beautiful installation, in which you as a viewer have an emotional, a physical, a psychological moment of transcendence or transformation, in which you are imagining “Oh my God. What would it be like for me to have experienced the dictatorship? For me to have had a child who had disappeared?” And mind you, this is history, but at the same time, all of the mothers are still protesting in the same way. They’re still singing, they’re still wearing lockets, this is something that is continuing on in 2018 and will continue.
Yes, and that is a big part of the work, right? It’s also deeply essential. Part of my practice is very much art within a gallery in which people have experience. At the same time, I also work with lawyers, I work with researchers, I work with activists. And I like to think about, how can I find legal loopholes in which my role as an artist and my legal standing as an artist allows me to do things that I couldn’t otherwise do.
How is this different than the other work that you do?
All of my work is thinking about how to pay tribute but also transcend violence. A lot of the other work that I do is very similar. I try to think about forms which are very delicate and intimate and create an experience for the audience that transcends the original violence.
Ring of Freedom
I just had another solo show, which just finished at George Washington University. The piece was in the show The Ring of Freedom. All of the work in that exhibit includes the physical, material violence of tragedy. For instance, using items like guns and bullets, melting them down and turning them into musical installations. Particularly for that show, I was thinking about gun violence, but really gun violence towards the queer community. I took a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, which is the exact model of rifle that was used during the Orlando Pulse Club Shooting. Melting it down it became 49 Liberty Bells for the 49 victims who died.
Because I am a gay Latin woman, Orlando felt very close to home. I really felt like I could have been in that club. A lot of times, in Latin America, as a gay woman I expected homophobia. Even though this sounds so naïve and innocent, I really thought that I would be safe in the United States. This is clearly is not true.
Line of Fire
I also wanted to turn the very material of the violence, the gun, into Liberty Bells because not only is, of course, a bell a way of attempting to resurrect the dead, but also the symbol of the NRA is a Liberty Bell. I just thought, oh my God, what a double-edged sword. That is so incredibly representative of the paradox that is gun control in this country, that the very thing that’s supposed to represent American freedom is also what an organization is using to support Second Amendment rights.
On that installation, I had the name of each of the victims inscribed on each of the bells. Then there is a video of me melting down the gun. I also built a 27-foot long installation in which 121 empty bullet casings are now bullet chimes. They’re suspended by gold chains, so it literally looks like a graph which is going from the ground all the way up to the ceiling, and they’re all vibrating.
That piece was called The Line of Fire. The 121 bullets for the expected number of queer people to die from mass gun violence in 2018.
Reflecting the past, present, and future in art
To me, that was really important because I wanted to think about the picture. I have one part of the exhibit that is focused on past violence, even though it happened quite recently. The other piece is also thinking about a projected violence. Violence to come, and how actually this installation is very similar to data, right? Because it’s calculated bullets which are slowly moving up, similar to a chart. However, it is also expected violence. As a queer woman in the United States, I can calculate my expected survival for the next year.
I decided to have it ringing because the sort of bullets is made out of brass, which is actually a really beautiful metal to work with in order to create sound. The ringing that the piece made was, I think really similar to sort of the ring that you hear in your ears after a gun is shot or after bullets fly to the ground. And it’s just kind of, but it’s very angelic, so that paradox also felt important to me.
By the people
Then, I ended up doing as part of the exhibit, a large scale performance in which we finished the song playing at the time of the Orlando Pulse Club shooting. It was me, another singer and Marie singing the chorus of the Shakira song that was playing at the time. There are also dancers who are responding to our voices and the installations in the space.
I also did a large-scale performance at the Smithsonian, in June. That was also part of the Ring of Freedom series. For that series, for that performance, I had three dancers and each one was wearing a mobile. Each of the mobiles had 39 bullet chimes for the expected number of people to die from mass gun violence every day in the US and there was a singer. The singer was singing about gun violence but also harmonizing with the sound of the bullet chimes. That was part of the festival that Halcyon Art Labs put on which was called By the People.
So, getting back to this exhibit, How has it made you feel having this on display here and getting people’s feedback and reactions?
Well, sometimes I’m here in my studio, but people do not know I am here. I hear people reacting to the work . This one guy came in, oh my God, he was having a 30-minute conversation with himself about the work. And it was about the sort of tension in between the delicacy and the beauty of the work. Contrasted against the incredible terror that the work is about. It’s sort of a balance in between those two, which I always try to do.
We are in your studio office. Do you want to explain your set up a little bit?
Yes. A big part of my practice as an artist is not just creating art or aesthetic experiences for people. I’m not just an artist, I’m also an archivist, a researcher, a historian, and an activist. I really wanted to be transparent about that to people who are coming into the space. I thought, what better way to do it than to be really clear, obvious and transparent about my process as an artist
So, we’re in my studio which is part of my exhibit. You can see my bookshelf, which is an accumulation of books about photography, about contemporary art. My collection is about what it means to be an archivist, but also giving historical books about the Argentinian dictatorship. There are images on the walls which show previous performances. Including, show contracts I exhibited at the Open Society Foundation. There are drawings of future installations, of past installations as well as texts that I’ve read. There’s also some scores from my old performances that also relate to this project. Some of the materials that I used to actually make the installation.
Behind you, is a large scale print, which was also up at Open Society Foundation last year.
So, what’s the next step with this piece?
This piece, I’m very lucky, because this piece is, the show is coming down on Monday. It’s going to go into storage for a couple, about a month. And then at the end of September, it’s gonna be reinstalled two blocks from here at the 355 Pods Space. This is a massive 70-foot storefront window. So the piece is gonna be a little bit different. It will be longer, and a bit skinnier. But it’s going to be reinstalled. I will also have my studio space, which I will be working out of, a couple blocks from here. That will be up until January.
*Through January, the exhibit is now at 355 Gallery, an extension of VisArts in Rockville, Maryland. For more information on the exhibit, or to schedule a walkthrough tour, please email Mercedes @ Ornamental.Activism.c[email protected]
About the Author:
The founder of Omkara World, Adam Omkara is a mind/body health coach and spiritual advisor to some of the most influential people in the country, including: Celebrities • Politicians • Award Winning Scientists • Professional Athletes and Sports Teams Owners • Billboard Musicians • Bollywood Stars • Ironman Champions • and a Former Miss Olympia.
—Lead Image: Stephanie Mercedes, Los Relicarios, installed at Open Society Foundations from 2017-2018,
courtesy of VisArts.