Memorizing mass violence in contemporary art exhibitions, 1990- present

Research Stéphanie Benzaquen

prof.dr. Maria Grever and prof.dr. Ton Bevers (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Colonial massacres of Herero in Namibia, Young Turks-led extermination of Armenian communities, Soviet Gulag, Holocaust of World War II, Khmer Rouge terror, Argentina Dirty War, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and Rwanda genocide… The 20th century has been riddled by mass violence. As we enter the 21st century, how do we look at these events? How do we remember them? In our globalized world singular interpretations of historical events are unattainable, even more so in cases of massacres and other forms of mass violence. Over the past twenty years, new narratives of trauma have surfaced – from the fall of the Iron Curtain to the downfall of colonial empires – conveyed by people through media across national, ethnic and generational boundaries. These images and narratives have intertwined with or been taken over from older ones, creating multicultural realms in which traumatic memories get a new voice and are listened to. These recent historical events create opportunities for comparisons with the past, leading to observations of changes in perception of “mass violence” by asking questions: which story is told, whose story is told, and how is it told?

Central question
The central question of my research concerns the iconic canons by which atrocity and trauma are mediated in today’s multicultural society. How do features such as globalization, human rights culture, international justice, the rise of new academic disciplines (as postcolonial theory), and new information technologies impact on both historical interpretations of events and the visual construction of traumatic memory? What makes up the selective process of canonization: repetition of images, tropes, cultural encoding? Do we witness the emergence of new forms of representation? To answer these questions, my research examines the trans-national and cross-cultural aesthetics circulating in contemporary art exhibitions. How are political efficacy, moral and aesthetic judgments articulated in curatorial practice and how do they link to key debates in the representation of mass violence? As the politics of remembrance are reconfigured in the public sphere, how does the analysis of the organization, display, and reception of such public exhibitions help clarify the relationship between commemoration of mass violence, visual encoding, and identity politics?

Addressing the curatorial practice of the representation of mass-violence in contemporary art settings by a sociological approach to exhibitions, studying the way in which they are organized and, in specific cases, their effect on the public. Worldwide media shapes our concept of mass violence, victims, and perpetrators through their production of iconic canons of atrocity and trauma. My research proposes to uncover and unravel the principles of these canons: by reassessing key debates on art representation from an intellectual, societal, and technological context; by dissecting mass violence visualization with the iconographical tools of art history. Using several disciplines, my research will question “the preservation of traditional disciplinary boundaries and structures of knowledge” (Rothberg: 6); locate – within discourses of representation – counterparts to historiographic debates (Rogoff: 118); expand to terrains where visual studies and history interact and benefit from each other.

From April to July 2012, Stéphanie Benzaquen was Leon Milman Memorial Fellow at the  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. See for more information the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.