Muriel Hasbún's X post facto

Photo: E-Hemi, "On the Subject of Archives"
Ex post facto is Latin for “a thing done afterward.”  The images in Muriel Hasbún’s X post facto (2013) involve the viewer in looking retrospectively at x-ray images and re-membering bodies by paying attention to signs, marks and traces left behind.  “This is how the body remembers. It creates crevices and strange fossils. Encrustations and indentations. A sea of sediment upon sediment. A place revealed” (Hasbún, “Artist Statement” HEMI, X post facto)

Muriel Hasbun developed the X post facto collection from her father’s archive of dental records.  During the war, Hasbún’s father was called to identify bodies through dental records.  In one case he was asked to identify the body of a woman named Janet abducted in 1984.  “The memory of Janet and her portrait haunted me as I looked at my father’s archive. Like a medical examiner or a forensic anthropologist, I examined x-ray after x-ray. At first, they all seemed as anonymous as a document signed with an X" (Hasbún, “Artist Statement” HEMI, X post facto).  The viewer of Hasbún’s exhibit also discovers this; to a large extent the photographs offer  hermetic traces of unknowable lives.  The truth about the past seems to lie somewhere else.

X post facto reminded me of Marianne Hirsch’s explanation of the tiny photograph of her parents, Lotte and Carl Hirsch in The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust.  Hirsch's parents appear to be a happy young couple walking down a city street.  On the back, the picture is marked “Cz. 1942,” Czernowitz was a Romanian city collaborating with Nazi leaders in that year.  Her parents would have been subject to severe restrictions, oppression, and persecution and would have been forced to wear a yellow star identifying them as Jews. Yet Marianne Hirsch notes a disjuncture between what the image reveals and the context in which it was taken: “Nothing in the picture betrays the hardship of the time.  Carl and Lotte are not visibly suffering; they don’t look starved, unhealthy or afraid” (56).  Hirsch enlarged the photo eager for the image to reveal more so that the two sides might match up.  The enlarged version revealed a small spot on Carl’s lapel that could have been the yellow star that Hirsch was looking for, but the spot was too blurry to make out.  “Perhaps it is dust-no more than a small dot of dirt blocking light on the print”(59).  In the end, Hirsch determines that it was her reception of the photograph, the questions that she was asking of it, and her own desires that were shaping her viewing of the image instead of the factual information in the image itself.  Hirsch concludes that “photographs are limited and flawed historical documents” because our questions exceed the image’s limited ability to serve as evidence. 

Hasbún’s X post facto collection evokes the viewer’s own knowledge of the historical context and memories of the war.  "Photographs give rise to certain bodily acts of looking and certain conventions of seeing and understanding that we have come to take for granted but that shape, seemingly re-embody, and render material, the past we are seeking to understand and receive" (Hirsch 38).  Muriel Hasbún explains a similar experience while sifting through the images.  She began seeing the x-rays as landscapes that carried the traces of people's lives:  "X post facto would become an emotional register for my experience during and after the Salvadoran civil war.” 

(See Muriel Hasbún's Portfolio at