“It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide. […] She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found.”
(Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, 2012)
“Disappearance” is a term which has possibly never been more apposite. In an era when disseminated images and information are updated every second, it signifies a conscious exit from the hectic pace of life, in other words: peace and quiet. But just as much as it is something people desire, it is also one of their greatest fears – who isn’t aware of the anxiety of not being seen, of being consigned to oblivion or becoming forgetful oneself? For millennia, this has been a dread shared by many. Palaces, monuments and artworks have been created in order to commemorate rulers or famous people and keep their memory alive.
Unlike physically disappearing, the idea of making yourself invisible at a purely visual level has fired people’s imaginations: even in Greek mythology, Hades, the god of the underworld, donned his Cap of Invisibility to remain hidden from view. In the Song of the Nibelungs, Siegfried wrests a cloak from the dwarf Alberich which renders him invisible. One of the eponymous rings in Lord of the Rings allows its bearer to disappear from sight. There are many more examples of this phenomenon, but they all share one thing: they illustrate people’s deep desire to be liberated from their own body and concealed from the gaze of others for a while.
Although it’s well known that traces of our Internet usage cannot actually be deleted, because the Internet “forgets” nothing, nowadays the digital world is a sphere where the user can effectively “go off the radar screen”. Such notions are also reflected in the way the digital revolution affects us. We’re eager to play with fiction, although it has long since ceased to be fiction. Technical developments mean that computer games seem increasingly real, virtual realities are becoming more tangible, and animated bodies appear authentic. As the boundaries of our four-dimensional world are being dissolved and the virtual domain seeps through, this is accompanied by the process of dematerialising and re-materialising. People retreat from analogue reality into a virtual one, and start living in this non-physical world. And vice versa, virtual realities have long outgrown their online existence. Avatars and cyborgs – whether they are hybrids of artificial and living organisms or entirely synthetic creatures – are pushing back the frontiers and multiplying steadily. Thanks to technical innovations, physically existing bodies are rendered as images and essences.
There are other ways of disappearing, too, namely through disguise and concealment. Whether in a playful context, or while serving the interests of society – for instance spying on enemies of the state, or individuals managing to survive by adopting tactics for not attracting attention in certain circumstances – people adapt externally or internally in order to blend in with their settings.
Ultimately, involuntary disappearances caused by violent interventions or which occur in the course of transformative processes also form a concrete part of our modern-day lives. People, places, cities and their buildings are all subject to acts of destruction as well as natural changes. The Old disappears to make way for the New. Cities and their structures are so overwhelmingly overrun by the processes of transformation that they occasionally completely eliminate a place’s history.
All these preliminary considerations lead us to the question of how the phenomenon of disappearance, with its many connotations, is expressed in contemporary works of art. How do visual artists deal with material which people find so captivating? What mechanisms bring about and control the processes of dissolution? And what can artists do to counteract disappearance?
To See or Not to Be is an exhibition that brings together strategies for disappearance, dissolution and transformation. It first explores physical and mental disappearance, then goes on to consider our approach to these issues, a process that commences as soon as a particular form or material aide de memoire is no longer recognisable.
The exhibition is supported by: