Our memories […] are influenced not only by who we once were, but also by who we have become, not only by the past, but also by the present in which memories are recalled.” Memories, in short, are by no means objective representations of the past. Professor of Psychology Douwe Draaisma put it this way in his Forget book (2010).
This subjectivity also has far-reaching political consequences: whoever is able to rewrite our memory increases his power. The exhibition is about that theme Theater of Broken Memories by photographer Bebe Blanco Agterberg (1995), which can now be seen in the Amsterdam photo museum Foam.
The work of Blanco Agterberg, who graduated cum laude from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2020, is about her origins – and therefore also about the regime of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Her mother is Spanish, who was adopted in 1964, she says in a video on the Foam site. In 2019, the photographer went to Spain looking for clues about her mother’s adoption, but did not find any. She concluded that this lack is the result of what is known in Spanish politics as the ‘pact of forgetting’.
The forgetting pact, the ‘Pacto del Olvido‘ is an agreement from the 1970s with which Spanish politicians tried to leave behind the black past of the Franco years. The pact resulted in an amnesty law that ended the prosecution of the regime’s perpetrators. At the same time, memories of the regime faded from view.
In the introductory video, photographer Blanco Agterberg calls it “extremely dangerous” that governments treat history as the Spanish government did after Franco. “People started to doubt their memories, and the government manipulated their memories as well.” That’s why, she says, she wants the spectators of Theater of Broken Memories to challenge. “Listen to what you see, and if you can decipher whether what you see is the real story.” Do memories reflect what happened – it’s an interesting theme for a documentary photographer.
And then there were only six pictures, in triplicate. Three times the same six black and white photos.
The ‘exhibition’ on the second floor of the photography museum is a dark space. Inside, three photo walls are arranged in a triangle. On each of the walls of that “sturdy monolithic structure” hangs the same series of six photographs. A bare-chested young man; the silhouette of a man; a monument; a wall with putty; four arms holding what looks like sticks; a sculpted face in a pit. The only difference between the three series is the order.
In these differences lies the elaboration of the problem raised by Bebe Blanco Agterberg. A female voice tells in English what to see. She does this three times, each time for almost three minutes, with a theater spotlight illuminating the accompanying series.
Those stories differ greatly. The young man is a skater, you hear. He practices his sport at the neglected monument Arco de la Victoria. (Look up for yourself that Franco remembered victory in the 1936 Spanish Civil War.) Is the skater’s name Manuel, as one version of the voice-over says? Or is his name Alex? Does he think Franco is a great man, or just a bad guy? Suddenly you think: is this man a skater?
Also read the TV section Zap from 2019: How long will the pact to forget Franco last?
Those who take the time are made to think by Blanco Agterberg – about the role of the messenger of information, about propaganda. If the viewer can’t verify information, what counts as true? Then the story that is most forcefully propagated – one naturally thinks of Putin’s ‘special military operation’. Then photography may well become theatre, as the title of the exhibition suggests.
It does take a lot of dedication to ponder that issue in this room. Too much for most visitors, who leave the room within a few minutes. At the entrance of the exhibition hangs a TV with headphones that seems to be showing something – perhaps the enlightening video with Blanco Agterberg himself? – but it is disabled.
Theater of Broken Memories is a brave work by a documentary photographer, who after all casts doubt on the power of her own medium. But that vision makes you curious about more than these six photos.View an overview of our visual art reviews