2014-15 Yearlong Project
The Power of Disappearance
Frazer Ward, Art
People. Things. Buildings. Habitats. Ways of life. Species. Technologies. Reputations. Memories. Affections. Everything disappears.
Still, the forms, means, and valences of disappearance vary widely, as do the means of its representational capture. This yearlong project hopes to bring together faculty across fields whose work deals with the implications and the meanings associated with disappearance—its polyvalent quality and its power to transform consciousness. How does disappearance produce cultural forms and artifacts; how does it create effects that are both visible and obscure? How is disappearance represented politically, historically, scientifically, spiritually?
Clearly, the power of disappearance is central to many disciplines. Visual artists often play with disappearance as a tool for representation, whether in the disappearance of the image when painting meets photography in the work of Gerhard Richter, or in the aesthetic act of decay that characterizes the crumbling (disappearing) sculptures of Cai Guo-Qiang. Conceptual artist Tehching Hsieh built on the trope of disappearance by dropping out of the art world (and the world in general) for 13 years, living in obscurity and working a minimum wage job. His reemergence, greeted with enthusiasm and surprise, provided a negative form for the constitution of art as a category. The fact of disappearance became itself the artistic act.
In history and politics, what is disappeared often speaks more loudly than what is present. Victims of Spanish and Argentinean dictatorships, for example, have come to be known (perhaps perversely) as "the disappeared." Their disappearance—and the means by which they are remembered and memorialized—crystallize our understanding of the state's mobilization of violence. "The disappeared" limn a sense of the state as powerful and capricious, but also vulnerable. The violent disappearance of bodies inspires terror, but these disappearances also open a space of cultural fantasy about "what happened," yielding transformative intellectual work, activism, and again, art.
In biology, of course, the fact of disappearance is fundamental: Species disappear and become extinct. Fossil records, entombed in stone, document those disappearances. But here again, the idea of disappearance has proved porous: Some species, like the Coelecanths, are assumed to be long extinct only to reappear in other parts of the globe. In other cases, the permanent disappearance of some species inspires activism which then prevents the disappearance of others.
The same patterns can be seen in the social sciences. Anthropologists and sociologists chart the ways that traditional customs and social norms disappear in the face of colonialism, agribusiness, and development. Yet scholarship in these fields documents how disappearance gives rise to new, hybrid forms of existence (as in the lives of immigrants struggling with assimilation), complicating the concept of disappearance and affording it a kind of generative capacity. In the digital era, we’ve become accustomed to the rapid appearance and disappearance of forms of technology. Older forms of sociality have disappeared in the face of virtual relations begging the question of what is lost and what is gained.
Working across disciplinary boundaries, considering the ways in which disappearance is studied and described across fields, we hope to expand our understanding of how what has disappeared shapes and gives meaning to what is left behind.