Tuesday, 23 December 2014

TVAD Talks: Dr Barbara Brownie, ‘Shoes Without Feet: The presence of absence in empty-shoe memorials’

The last in our series of reflections on the research seminars presented as part of the TVAD Talks series in the autumn term of 2014 is Dr Barbara Brownie's ‘Shoes Without Feet: The presence of absence in empty-shoe memorials’, presented on Wednesday December 10th 2014. Here is the abstract for the talk, and a film of Barbara's presentation is below, with some images discussed in the presentation.

Personal artefacts left behind by the victims of conflict and tragedy become part of the material culture of war. The piles of clothes and shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz and Dachau, give us a sense of the thousands of victims who once owned them. Holocaust museums in particular display shoes among other primary artefacts as “tangible proof in the face of debate about, and even denial of, what transpired [during the holocaust]” (Williams, 2007, p. 25). Shoe memorials exhibit what philosopher Patrick Fuery (cited in Bille et al. 2010, p. 5) describes as “secondary absence”, that is, not absence itself, but absence that is “defined by its connection to presence”. Memorialists are directly concerned with expressing absence through presence. Shoes are presented as witnesses to past events, and are sometimes the only surviving evidence of the existence of the people who once wore them.
Though they are designed with the intention of referencing the past, shoe memorials often say more about the contemporary communities that construct them than they say about the memorialised victims. Particularly in recent temporary shoe memorials, for which shoes are repurposed (often donated by members of the bereaved community), victims are remembered as through the eyes of the living. There is an artificiality to these memorials that reflects a desire for familiarity rather than authenticity. Repurposed for use in a memorial, shoes are transformed into sacred objects. Once archived, the memorial artefacts are more effective as a record of public grief than of the tragedy itself.
This TVAD discussion will present examples of holocaust shoe memorials at Auschwitz and on the river Danube in Budapest, in which shoes are presented to document the suffering of victims, in contrast to vernacular and temporary memorials of the past two decades, for which shoes are selected to represent the grief of those left behind. I will address how shoes transform parks and streets into "traumascapes" or, in some cases, into data visualisations which precisely quantify loss.

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