Theater of Disappearance connects Argentina’s Dirty War with Art History

The Theater of Disappearance is a Met Fifth Avenue Cantor Roof Garden installation by Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas. It is on view (weather permitting) from April 14 – October 29, 2017.

The Theater of Disappearance connects Argentina’s Dirty War with art history, New York City (the rooftop’s backdrop), and the moment we live in.

Human history is a history of war. Art history is a history of dreams. The American Dream is the dream of a better life for all people. Ironically it is supported by a perpetual global war machine, the likes of which have never been seen in human history.

When the military turns against its own people, you may find yourself inside your own Theater of Disappearance.

Argentina’s Dirty War is the Context

The “Dirty War” (Guerra Sucia) was a period of state terrorism in Argentina from the mid-1970s until Argentina’s military government collapsed after the Malvinas War (Falklands War) in 1983.

The U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) is a U.S. Department of Defense Institute at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. It has been rebranded as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), but still exists.

The School of the Americas trained Latin American military personnel to fight communists during the Cold War. Its graduates are a who’s who list of Latin American military dictators. The name most recognizable to U.S. American readers is Manuel Noriega of Panama. The list includes Zetas Cartel founders in Mexico and other seriously bad guys in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru.

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Syria and Iraq, U.S. military training and support unleashed hell upon citizens of their respective countries. The support created forces that we ended up fighting against. Crime school is not a good way to do law enforcement.

Respected statesman Henry Kissinger famously gave the Argentine government the go ahead to start the Dirty War. The global anti-communism effort may have caught a few communists, but mostly it ruined the lives of millions of innocents and destabilized societies around the world in a way that we are still dealing with today.

“Communist” is a dehumanizing label. In order to kill someone, you have to dehumanize them first. Post colonial governments have a habit of failing their people. When governments fail, the people are forced to band together to survive. That may be unionizing or socialism, but it isn’t inherently bad. Even priests organizing poor communities were swept up in the Dirty War. They were not communists.

Argentina’s Dirty War was famous for “disappearing” people in the name of fighting communism. The number disappeared is estimated at about 30,000 Argentines.

As an Argentine friend who had mixed feelings about becoming an American citizen asked me, “What would you think if when you were in high school, the kid who sat next to you in class didn’t show up one day and was never seen again?”

How is a kid in high school a threat? All kinds of people were swept up. Many were tortured and killed. One of the main torture centers was just down the hill from the Casa Rosada, the Argentine White House.

The people leading the effort were foreigners in aviator sunglasses driving Ford Falcons. Seeing that classic car still sends chills up the spines of Argentines of a certain age.

Car batteries were used to terrible effect. After being tortured, people were drugged, tied up, and then thrown out of helicopters and airplanes into the Rio de la Plata. In the name of fighting the next generation of subversives, pregnant prisoners had their babies taken away at birth and given to military families.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) was started by grandmothers who would wear white handkerchiefs on their heads in a weekly silent protest in Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada. We are still finding these “adopted” children.

It’s all history now, but this is the context for The Theater of Disappearance. Art writers don’t tell the story this way because they know art, but not our human history. Now that you know, you can see the installation in an entirely different light.

[Note: This is what happens when warriors become police. Trained killers rely on instinct and training in the heat of the moment. God bless our military and our police, but the militarization of policing is a very bad idea.]

The Theater of Disappearance

Adrián Villar Rojas. The Roof Garden Commission: Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance. Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photographed by Jörg Baumann.

Adrián Villar Rojas. The Roof Garden Commission: Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance. Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photographed by Jörg Baumann.

To get to the Cantor Rooftop, you have to wander through the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits. The Met is the American encyclopedia of art history. Rojas spent months exploring the museum and talking with those who work there. He incorporates almost 100 objects from the Met collection that represent thousands of years of human and art history.

Like many artists before him, Rojas retells art history in his own contemporary context. The work looks like plaster castings, but is actually 3D printed. Rojas has said, “The Met’s history as an institution is a testimony to America’s path as a nation. Its doors opened in 1870 with a large collection of plaster casts of sculptural masterpieces.”

The Met’s history as an institution is a testimony to America’s path as a nation.

~ Adrián Villar Rojas ~

The human figures in the scene are scans of Met staff members and their families. A hand making the sign of the horns as a reference to Rock and Roll is a scan of Rojas’ own hand. Argentina is the home of Rock en Español. Argentines were the first to compose Rock in Spanish instead of just translating the lyrics from songs in English.

The tiled floor looks like it was torn out of an old house in Buenos Aires. In fact there is a home turned into a shopping gallery in San Telmo, an old neighborhood of Buenos Aires, that has a floor just like that.

Tables represent the Latin family. Latins are naturally a group people (socialists if you want to call us that). The table is where we gather and share. It is the hearth of the Latin family. An empty table is a metaphor for tragedy. It means something is missing. This is the Latin table after our own Shoah (Holocaust).

The Last Supper was a final meal before the ultimate betrayal. Here the empty tables represent a betrayal of our very humanity. Most of the seats are empty. Almost nobody came to dinner. Almost nobody said anything.

There is an Argentine expression that translates as “like eating a bag of cement.” It means something is hard to digest. The never-ending horror of disappearance is this way.

At first this seems to be an Argentine work of art, but it actually directly references the history of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and all the works from the Met collection.

I always thought that “disappearance” was something that happened long ago and far away. It was done by bad people somewhere else.

But if you are part of a Latin family in the United States, you cannot help being terribly aware that disappearance is happening right here, right now, in this moment we are living in. Sadly, if I were to file this work of art under a main topic today, it would have to be the culture of our own United States.

Look it up at and pray that you never find yourself or lose your family into The Theater of Disappearance.

Adrián Villar Rojas

Adrián Villar Rojas, photographed by Mario Caporali

Adrián Villar Rojas, photographed by Mario Caporali

Adrián Villar Rojas was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1980. Rojas is represented in New York City by Marian Goodman Gallery and in Mexico City by Kurimanzutto.

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