Bodies of Memory: Adelita Husni-Bey’s Lethe

In 2010, Italian-Libyan artist Adelita Husni-Bey created a 5 monitor installation called Lethe as part of extensive research trips around Lake Como to uncover exact sites of partisan executions in the years leading up to 1945. While the history books vividly record the executions of Mussolini in this region in April 1945, this was also the site of many executions of partisans and anti-fascists during Il Duce’s oppressive regime. The fates of these victims is less well-established and each of the monitors are set up on plinths, to correspond to the imagined heights of the victims.

Husni-Bey’s references to Lethe, the ancient Greek underworld ‘River of Forgetfulness’, emphasizes the way that forgetting is a key part of historical narratives and also the way landscape and mythology come together. Each monitor imagines the perspective of the partisan’s last moments as they look out over the countryside and lake, and the ominous soundtrack cuts along with the images to represent the victims’ deaths.

Here is the pertinent passage from Plato’s Republic that describes the River Lethe during the Myth of Er (Plato Rep. 10. 621a):

And after it had passed through that, when the others also had passed, they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion, through a terrible and stifling heat, for it was bare of trees and all plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness, whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things.

One of Husni-Bey’s recent works – After the Finish Line – shown as part of the Whitney exhibition Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 maintains the focus on the body, but shifts from forgetting to memory. A group of young athletes recount the shift from the immediate aches and pains of their post-performance bodies to their conversations and shared striving as individuals beyond the immediate goals of competition.

I cannot help but connect Lethe and After the Finish Line, via Plato, in thinking that the shift from the individual body (of partisans, Mussolini, Er, athletes) and its suffering and death, is transformed through art into a potent sites for memory, community and life. Again, under the cloud of the illegal immigration orders we are dealing with at the moment, remembering and celebrating the power of the group, the collective and the communal are all the more necessary and pressing.

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