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Representation of Trauma in Visual Art Everything will be remembered. Everything recorded.

The body may be said to have agency also in other ways than through the conscious making of self. Sometimes violence and experiences of suffering cannot be talked about but may be brought to mind by something ordinary. Some women told me how, years after their circumcision and without warning, they began experiencing lower abdominal pain when they passed slaughterhouses.’[1]

Typically, in my art practise I start the project looking for a single image or sentence to inspire me on to research through to the actual making and installing. With this approach I usually am certain that this will go on to take a life of its own and sprout into multiple ideas and areas for research. Having this is mind I then decided to go this way in finding a topic for this dissertation. I did not have to wait long and with came across an article in a journal about a study on how women who have undergone circumcision at a young age spoke about reliving their pain years after their procedure in completely different life situations. This kind of ‘body memory’ about how we remember sensorially through the body got me thinking about how this could translate into art. So, if a person can feel pain by just the sight of something that takes them back to that moment when they actually went through the physical pain, then to some extent one would think that art above anything else can try and work with that.

I have always wanted to be a social commentator of the current social and political climate. I have thought of it as being equivalent to writing an article by connecting ideas and making opinions, just that as an art maker I am trying to do that through objects. In my current practise I found myself trying to find a way to depict physical pain without being overly sentimental. As an artist I think art is the final refuge of open dialogue, questioning of dogmas and analysing of facts. It made sense for me to pick a topic that highlights the work of few amazing artists who have taken on historical and political issues of localised communities and persons and brought it to the attention of the wide world. The term ‘art’ that I use throughout the dissertation includes all mediums of art including film making and literature.

Growing up in 80s and 90s India, cinema was and still is a big social influencer, critic, entertainer, moral yardstick and temporary escape from reality, all in one. The story in most of the mainstream ones was mostly about familial instances of misfortune and pain and the protagonist trying to fight their circumstances to emerge at the end of three hours with their problems resolved. The background music is mostly always in a Minor key, emotional scenes ensuring the audience sniffled into their handkerchiefs left me with a kind of cynicism towards this non-nuanced way of over simplifying affect to the audience.

In my own work I was clear it had to be independent of how I felt about the theme (of social injustice and trauma of female castration) but I had to make up my mind about how and what I wanted to convey about the experience. Did I want my audience to put themselves in the shoes of these women and feel their pain? Did I want to want to be informative and detached or visceral and emotional? For instance the British Film maker Kim Longinotto who’s controversial film ‘The day I will never forget’ hit the point she was making hard. Following the story of two young sisters one of the scenes in the film shows in graphic detail of the procedure of circumcision of the two sisters. It is in the genre of documentary film making so the director’s intention was to try and become totally invisible and allow the viewer to be ‘in the room’. So there was no ‘spoon feeding’ of emotion but an onslaught of raw unfettered pain and gore in the name of tradition. The film garnered a lot of criticism for its unfiltered depiction of pain. When interviewed she said ‘In a way it was the most difficult and scary thing for me, ever. Because it’s something concrete; it’s about female circumcision, so I knew there were things that people would have to know about, exactly how it’s done.’ [2] The director’s intention was to let the outside world have a small slice of lived reality in all its ugliness.

There are two facets to thinking about trauma depiction in the arts. One is the actual rendering of it in the chosen media of the artwork and the other is the ethical consideration of how it is shown. Both are complex but very critical in trauma studies precisely because it involves something which stands on the vanishing point of representation, where the portrayal of pain whether physical or psychological cannot really do justice for which they stand. How is it handled (should it be hard hitting and transparent like Kim Longinotto’s documentary film or more nuanced), why is someone’s pain considered noteworthy while the other’s is not and is it appropriate at all using another’s pain as a subject of one’s work. These are some of the considerations that I will try and unpick through my essay.

Artists through history whether it is Goya with his graphic paintings about the war or Francis Bacon who is said to have actually painted the ‘scream’ have successfully and sometimes less so have tried to find a way to cut across the ‘fourth dimension’ to capture pain. In ‘Francis Bacon and the logic of sensation’ Gilles Deleuze says ‘ Bacon establishes a relationship between the visibility of the scream (the open mouth as a shadowy abyss) and invisible forces, which are nothing other than the forces of nature.’ Representation and trauma are almost an oxymoron and cannot be spoken of in the same sentence let alone in practise.

‘Physical pain does not resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to state anterior to language, to the sounds and sights a human being makes before language is learned.’[3]

Western art in the 18th and 19th century has been about providing an insight into the outside world with most of the art being provided for the state or its religion. Since then though there has been a radical change in the use of art as a link to our internal self. With a variety of tools and techniques invented within its genre, artists are able to record and provide subjective evidence towards this goal. ‘Because much of the 20th century was punctuated by worldwide and regional wars, political upheaval, natural disasters, and mass displacements, some artists used these traumatic events as subject matter. In addition, the development of psychotherapy provided a way to elicit and understand unconscious material. The art done by children, psychiatric patients, and non-Western peoples became a means of understanding different psychological perspectives. Also, many people untrained in art reacted to overwhelming traumatic events by doing their own spontaneous drawings and paintings.’ [4]

Everything we say and we do is political. Earlier being political meant being aligned to a political party but now everything we say and do has a political meaning whether we want to or not. The mainstream news media on television which we ingest, get bored, become restless and switch channels distracts attention, ensuring the content is light, easy to digest and indifferent to content. The constant negative feed of violence, war, climate catastrophes and pandemic threats have resulted in a deadening of reactions within us.

At the time of writing this dissertation, the world has seen trauma first-hand like never before with Covid-19 wreaking havoc across the world in real time! All nations without exception have suffered economically and personally with hundreds of thousands of lives being lost. The events being exacerbated by the Black Lives Matter protests over centuries of discrimination over black and coloured peoples in the west and in countries like India has made my writing on the grasping of the essence of trauma in the arts even more significant and topical. I truly believe art is the barometer of society and is a prescient warning for more to come.

The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol during one of the protests has to one of the stories that I have to mention here. Edward Colston of the Royal African Company was responsible for more than 80000 African people to be shipped as slaves to the Americas via the infamous Middle Passage. During that journey among those that got sick with infectious disease or dying were thrown overboard to become shark meat. These slave ships used to dock at the Bristol harbour in transit to their ultimate destination. So there is an element of irony when the statue of the person responsible for these actions is toppled and thrown into the same waters after some protestors knelt on the neck of the statue for eight minutes to signify the time that the police knelt on the neck of George Floyd.[5]

My dissertation therefore is a journey towards trying to understand the psychology and physiology of trauma by going into the practise and thinking behind some of the artists who have worked with the expression of collective pain and suffering. During my readings into this topic it has become more and more clear of the incredibly challenging the idea of representing pain and suffering is. My quest is to understand how visual art can cut through the fog of our oversignified zeitgeist and see between the fault lines and bring out a fresh viewpoint to events, emotions and memories that have been deemed as too tragic or painful. PTSD and collective trauma work because of the distorted storage of memory in the psyche and its transmission. My theory for this dissertation is to find out if art can ride on the dovetails of memory and affect to project, recreate and eventually make peace with the pain.

On the more empirical side, I point out that trauma studies so far have assumed that events that have hurt countries and communities in the Global North are relevant enough to be analysed and written about but totally ignoring one half of the globe. (The pandemic and its live devastation across the globe has broken that barrier.) Yet, it still begs the question about what the ethics are when with using another person’s pain as an object of an artwork is involved. When does that line between education and entertainment get blurred when sometimes someone else’s trauma becomes a spectacle? It felt timely and relevant to include trauma studies’ cultural impact like its Eurocentric position post World War 2 and the commodification of pain and its ethics while making and exhibiting art.

To understand how artists have analyzed pain through their works it is important we understand how it works in our psyche. In this context we use the term trauma as an umbrella term used in this context to include a psychological response to a deeply distressing event that interferes with a person or community’s sense of self. It is both a physical and a psychic piercing or wounding. Veena Das in ‘Language and Words’ writes ‘In this movement between bodies, the sentence ‘I am in pain’ becomes a conduit through which I may move out of the inexpressible privacy and suffocation of my pain.’[6] I feel the need to address the distinctive nature of physical pain in this part of the text before I go on to the psychological part.

Everybody experiences pain differently and finds it difficult to actually verbalize it. Most often that is the reason why people describe it in a way that is bound to physicality of objects. My hand feels like its on fire. It felt like I had slept on a bed of nails etc. Griselda Pollock in her book ‘After images After Effects’ has made broken down trauma into its individual elements. One of them is the term she uses ‘Perpetual presentness’ to describe the ever present effect of post trauma in an individual.

According to Scarry ‘The feeling of pain entails the feeling of being acted upon, and the person may either express this in terms of the world acting on him ("It feels like a knife... ) or in terms of his own body acting on him ("It feels like the bones are cutting through... "). Thus, though the phrase "language of agency" refers primarily to the image of the weapon, its meaning also extends to the image of the wound.’[7] Pain can be better imagined with the image of the weapon or wound. Here pain as a physical sensation is ‘objectified’ so that the thing that has caused the pain holds the power to heal the wound and reduce the pain. The weapon is treated like a sentient object so the haptic nature of having an object that can translate the vocabulary of pain. We can see the interpretation of this phenomenon in the iconic German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys’ sculpture of a knife blade bound in gauze shown in the Guggenheim museum in 1979 entitled, "When you cut your finger, bandage the knife.'' The linguistic origins of the word ‘pain’ is in Latin ‘peona’ meaning punishment. It helps in the naming of this most basic of events inside of the body by picturing the external social circumstances that caused the hurt in the first place. Objectifying has been used as a legitimate technique in the elimination of pain. ‘Some forms of pain therapy explicitly invite the patient to conceptualize a weapon or object inside the body and then mentally push it out—a process that has precedents in much older remedies that often entailed a shaman or doctor numerically ' 'pulling" the pain out of the body with some appropriately shaped object.’[8]

Giving pain a physical form or any kind of presence in terms of performance, a gesture within an artwork thus becomes a significant strategy by artists to express pain. One artist who embraces materiality to convey the alienating and disorientating experience of pain is Doris Salcedo. She uses ‘Ostranenie’ – a technique meant to defamiliarize the object but transforming the same to create a shock of recognition that is disturbing and as there is a trace of a story of loss visible in the piece.

For example, in the installation piece ‘Untitled’, she combines two pieces of furniture with poured cement. Salcedo removed the two doors and a single drawer from an old-fashioned free-standing wooden wardrobe, inserted an old wooden chair in the body of the wardrobe going through the back. She then pours cement into the structure ceiling all the openings and filling the crevices and chair to evoke the sealing of a tomb. She goes beyond the nature of the actual object that caused pain (as in the knife that evokes and holds pain) and gives more the process of making and remaking of becoming ‘uncanny’ and ‘strange’. The objects in Salcedo’s work evoke the presence of the pain and people who suffered that pain and death. ‘The way that an artwork brings materials together is incredibly powerful. Sculpture is its materiality. I work with materials that are already charged with significance, with a meaning they have acquired in the practice of everyday life.’[9]

Another artist working with physicality of the human body is Marc Quinn. Quinn, having gained prominence as part of the YBA in the 80s says his artistic practise explores the idea of limits and boundaries.

Self (which has gone on to having newer additions documenting apart from other things, his ageing process), is a self-portrait of the artist, that uses his body as subject and object simultaneously with the cast of Quinn's head, immersed in a frozen silicone mould of his head, and created from ten pints of his own blood. This way the sculpture is used as a metaphor and has both a symbolic and real function. The work was made at a time when Quinn was an alcoholic and with all kinds of addiction there is an ever-present role of dependency – here too his sculpture needed to be plugged in or to survive since the work needs electricity to retain its frozen appearance.

I am from India and from a generation that grew up with a palpable feeling of the burden of history and its violence. The ‘partition’ (as it is doubly for the actual separation of two states and also the violence that erupted between India and Pakistan) was a culmination of the British rule in India where about 2 million people have said to have died and 2 million more rendered homeless. Thousands of women were abducted from both sides of the border and the governments mostly succeeded in recovering them but with consequences that included social ostracism and psychological trauma. As a nation the collective wound has never really healed because it has never been properly addressed. Writers, artists and filmmakers have bridged the gap with some amazingly incisive films and stories and that seems to be the way the new generations learn about their national histories and their legacies.

One such story is by an Sa’adat Hasan Manto who moved from Mumbai to Karachi after the partition called ‘Khol Do’. The setting is the Partition and the communal violence though we never really get to see it in the story directly. An aged father and his daughter are refugees journeying from one border to another. The daughter gets separated from his daughter and upon reaching the border goes to the border police frantically in search for her. He gives them her picture so they can look for her in the crowds and the forests in between the borders.

The young men find Sakina hiding in abject fear ion the forest and reassure her with the picture given to them by the father that they are to be trusted. Cut to the next scene we see the father being shown a body of a young woman lying on a stretcher in the police station presumably dead. The police in the stifling summer heat asks his constable to open the window ‘Khol do – open it’! Suddenly there is a small movement in the presumed corpse where her two hands move slowly to open the drawstring of her salwar (trouser). The old man shouts in joy ‘My daughter is alive – my daughter is alive.’ The policeman looks on in horror.

Here the language is the weapon where the ordinariness of language gets transformed into something dysfunctional. In traditional cultures such as the Indian subcontinent where women are valued for their ‘purity’ any sign of a violation of that whether voluntarily of in this through rape means social ostracism and shame. It metaphorically is a kind of social death. But at the same time the father’s joy at seeing his daughter’s hand move, is his hope willing his daughter to find a way to live in his speech.

The pernicious nature of psychological trauma makes it so much more complicated. It is a sensation of discomfort that is a constant that is lodged in the person who has undergone a life-altering incident that is shocking and traumatic. The person may think they have gotten over it unscathed and does not realize it is still lodged in the psychological space and thus writes over the DNA of the person. There are a cluster of symptoms that are common throughout people who have undergone traumatic events that do not fall into category of depression that are now well documented as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD[10]. Sufferers relive the trauma through nightmares and flashbacks and may experience feelings of isolation and guilt. ‘On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them, also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.’ [11]

An event that occurred in the past presents itself in a form that does not relate to the present and thus cannot be described. It gets lodged in a person’s memory like a tumour that keeps tripping up with the person’s sense of who they are. It disrupts their memory of chronology of events and appears to lie dormant but makes it presence felt in the most unpredictable of times. It is an unknowable thing that is ever present, but which cannot be described. It could be a constant sense of being on high alert and therefore fatigue.

Representation in the form of an artwork could be the right antidote to the nebulousness of the feeling and it provides a kind of objectivity to see it outside in the form of a ‘thing’ but in a benign form. ‘It functions as delivery from overwhelming ‘affects’ of an anxiety that remains over-present and unmanaged for the very lack of representation that serves to structure it in encounter with the other’s words, words of culture. Some kind of representational formation offers deliverance that returns the event to the subject changed through temporizing and spatialising.’[12]

‘The experience of an individual is always my point of departure. But during the process of making an artwork, I must maintain a distance in order to leave that person intact, untouched. And from there, as soon as I begin working, everything enters into the paradoxical terrain of art.’[13] Responding to a traumatic event or ‘governing’ the event is something that I would like to explain through Gilles Deleuze’s writing on Michael Foucault’s concept of ‘folding’. The analogy of Deleuze’s idea of folding is relevant here because it talks about the continuous and infinite ways of trying to capture something without it resulting in a tangible, recognizable or universal form. According to Gilles’s study of Foucault, the ‘outside’ is folded or interiorized by producing a coexisting ‘inside’. It is the continuous movement of something that seems fixed. So when using the concept of folding to analyse the issue of ‘capturing trauma’, it is important to see it not as a completion to a final point but as a continuous and constantly evolving ‘process’.’[14]

In this context, ‘capturing’ the emotion of the traumatic event is to understand with the help of visual representation, a sense of meaning to what has happened. In a sense there is a need to step back and unscramble their thoughts and get themselves back together piece by piece. According to a study the trauma of PTSD is more about their memories of the event being displaced which is why it stops the victim from truly understanding why there are recurrences of nightmares and other symptoms. As mentioned above it is elusive and tends to haunt the survivor later on. It regroups in its intensity not in a fixed predictable time, but rather at a delayed moment when it is totally unexpected.

‘Is there an inside that lies deeper than any internal world, just as outside is farther away than the external world?’ [15]This concept of the ‘inside / outside’ also addresses the idea of looking at pain at the inside of thought, i.e empathy with a difference. Art that relates to trauma is more ‘transactive rather than communicative’[16], -it makes us sympathize, but it does not communicate the actual feeling of the real experience. In order for the artwork to be effective, we need to understand how an emotional reaction, or affect, is experienced by an audience seeing the work. In this the witness must acknowledge the inability to imagine the intensity of the experience. To say ‘I understand what you went through’ would be inappropriate and ‘I will never understand what you went through’ would be more acceptable. Dominic LaCapra, in his Holocaust studies, distinguishes empathy in the spectator from the primary experience of trauma, becoming aware of the difference between one’s own perception and the experience of the other. The discussion around the Holocaust studies have shown that traumatic imagery is itself traumatizing and the viewer may experience a vicarious muted dose of the trauma.

It can be seen within women of certain communities where bodily agency is expressed foremost through the reliving of pain. Three instances of extreme pain that every woman in the urban poor has to pass through in her life are circumcision (mostly as a child), sexual debut and childbirth. Repressed memories are relived when without warning they experience the same kind of pain in their bodies when they pass by slaughterhouses or when they see meat being cut up. So their body memory triggers a visceral reaction of actual physical pain just by just looking at certain objects. According to Hartman ‘Art’s truest reason of existence is to expand the sympathetic imagination while teaching us the limits of sympathy. Our studies in trauma allows us to acknowledge and respect the ‘otherness’ of the person who has undergone the pain, which means it does not ask us to understand, grasp or even imagine it. The most important aspect about working with stories of trauma for any artist is self-awareness and their ability to grapple with their impact on the subject.

According to Griselda Pollock, ‘what is important is to not shock or jolt the viewer but to thrust them involuntarily into a mode of critical enquiry. The art representing trauma speaks from an ‘inside’ position to an ‘outside’ one. It sits on an intersection between the inside and outside showing trauma as not just a psychological state of mind of the sufferer but as something that impacts the wider world around the person suffering it. It should be seen as having a presence, a force. ‘In art, and in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces. For this reason, no art is figurative. The task of painting is defined as the attempt to render visible forces that are not themselves visible.’[17]

In making my point I use two examples of scenarios, one set in Ireland and the other in India. In the gendered space of public mourning we see remarkable similarities between funereal rituals in India and in Ireland during the tumult of The Troubles’. As a country steeped in violence in the late 80s with ‘The Troubles’, political funerals were a regular feature of life. Most of the victims of political violence were male so the image of the ‘grieving woman’ became ubiquitous. It became a kind of media sensation to look out for the face of the grieving widow. But in this few minutes of coverage of the funeral it was clear that the mourners were very aware of the cameras and Johnston says ‘ small but very telling gestures where people withheld their own grief, stalled the impulse to retreat naturally to grief’.[18] Mourners also tried to conceal each other’s faces from the prying cameras. In one picture one of the mourners covers the face of another with an umbrella. Moved the pain and its obvious act of concealment, Johnston wanted to ‘mine’ into that body of pain and pierce the image thus making herself be part of the scene herself. Therefore, she re-shoots the footage of the funeral motorcade along with a second series of slides of herself next to the funeral images. It has to be noted here that Johnston had herself been traumatised by a violent attack and with this performance tried to capture the folding of grief from the women in the funeral pictures to her own grief.

In this way Johnston finds a connection between herself and the women on television. By acting out her own pain in this performance, she is having an empathetic understanding of the inner experience of the persons in pain. By placing her body image with that of the funeral footage, she not only evokes her own sense and memory of her trauma but enables a critical analysis of media studies of funerals. By doing this she has evidenced the folding of her inner experience into the outer world to deepen our understanding about the nature of grief/relationships, violence and pain.

Fig.3 Sandra Johnston

The second scenario I am about to describe is not a performance but a scene similar to the grieving widows of Ireland that inspired Johnston to insert herself into the scene not only to give them a voice but to allow a kind of catharsis to evolve from it. It is the aftermath of another kind of mass violence, that of the revenge killings of the men of the Sikh community in New Delhi in 1984. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was just assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards for having ‘defiled’ their Holy Temple by allowing the Military to flush out and kill Sikh separatists hiding in the temple. 4000 Silk men were hunted and killed by angry mobs on Delhi’s streets while the police and the government turned a blind eye. People were responsible for their own safety. The areas or ‘colonies’ that were affected by the violence had all the hallmarks of it with bullet holes and blood splattered on the walls. The women and children were witnesses to the killings of their husbands, sons and neighbours but were threatened with consequences if they spoke up. They were surrounded by those same men who posed as ‘volunteers’. But through the fear, there was a sense of ‘sullen resistance’ was beginning to take shape with the women forming a sort of convoy each holding the edge of the other’s dupatta (veil) wandering around the colony standing in front of each house – mute – but seeing through their mind’s eye things that were invisible to the others. The laments for their dead would not be uttered but they just stood with broken doors and burnt walls facing them in a silent scream. This real life ‘performance’ of these women is the very embodiment of the very essence of grief.

Absence gives texture to the object and provides a frame for the thinking of distance. Absence does literally not accept the past. The distant is then what

brings us closer and the absent – rather than absence – is a figure of return, as one says of the repressed -Pierre Fedida

According to all clinical studies of Trauma victims, memory plays one of the most important roles in the intensity of feelings, and also in the healing/management of the same. Memory and Amnesia in the representation of trauma; there is a word in German called ‘Nachträglichkeit ‘that describes accurately the phenomenon of the past returning in the present. Trauma is often due to a shocking life changing experience, and it is exacerbated by a belated response. The symptoms involve involuntary and repetitive disturbing characteristics like nightmares and flashbacks, and results typically in depressive and anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts, and addictions. A combination of disjointed memory lodged in the part of the psyche and the repetitiveness challenges the notion of a distinct past and a present.

Memory sits in the intersection of trauma studies that allows cultural, social and collective understanding of how pain in all its forms, temporalities and contexts. It could be a vehicle that artists use to produce affect and situate context. There have been many studies about trauma and whether or not art can convey or pass on the memories of the trauma to the viewer and do these transmitted memories get absorbed by the viewers as their own personal memories. Experts think PTSD is caused by the brain laying down memories of these events in the wrong place. It is as if it gets overwhelmed. The fact that it is a memory related disorder is key to understand how to break down the elements of the condition while thinking about it in terms of art.

Someone who has undergone a life changing event, ‘In place of theories that emphasize the conventional, mediated, illusory, deferred or imaginary status of the relation between representation and ‘actuality’ or ‘event’, trauma theory suggests that the relation between representation and ‘actuality’ might be reconceived as one constituted by the absence of traces. [19] According to trauma studies in psychology, the brain stores its trauma related memories in a very different way to ordinary ones. So for representation to be effective, is the relationship between the ‘coded’ memories and the real event taken into consideration or the actual event itself? It is the interpretations of memories rather than the actual qualities associated with the event that is understood to make memories traumatic. According to Caruth[20], it is the memories of the event that repeats itself in the psyche and the meaning we give to them afterwards that render a memory traumatic. What we can understand by this is that it is not the actual occurrence that in actuality is toxic, but also how the mind interprets it and embeds in our memory. ‘The inner world of the traumatized subject is characterized not by repression of un-acknowledgeable fantasies but by dissociated memories—traceless traces.’[21] The addition of a ‘witness’ as testimony to the trauma is key in the recovery process.

There can be no better metaphorical example of the shadow play of traumatic memory’s characteristic of gaps and remembrances than the medium of video projection. To make my point I have chosen Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video installations. ‘For offering testimony as representational form, Wodiczko’s video projections instantiate something of what I would suggest is video’s ontology, namely, the act of bearing witness, in all that of the ethical complexity of the historical project.’ [22] Video as a medium demands from its audience, an act of witness and as a message it is philosophical as it is psychological. It asks for us to bear witness of its act of witness. The camera is the proxy eye and the proxy witness. When the recorded image or moving image is played back, not in the real time of the event but at a later time of its screening, it ‘testifies’ to the act of having ‘been there’.[23]

The Bunker Hill Monument Project, a site-specific video installation that ran for three consecutive nights turning the Charlestown’s Bunker Hills monument into a screen as witness and memorialisation. For the project, mothers and family members of the young men murdered in an endless cycle of urban violence spoke of their grief. Images were projected on the monument of people’s faces, gestures and sounds shaped to the exact dimensions of the shape of the obelisk. The historical war memorial, for this moment is transformed into a contemporary one to current day battles, heroes and heroines. Charlestown in Massachusetts, over the 20th century had been mostly a working-class neighbourhood occupied by factory and Navy Yard workers. By the 1960s its economy was severely weakened by unemployment, gang violence, alcoholism and drugs. Wodiczko, who was at the time a professor in MIT, set out to study the conditions of his neighbourhood and found to his amazement, that it had one of the highest rates of murder in Boston and its inhabitants lived in a code of silence that meant most of the murders were left unresolved. The Bunker Hill project was a venture to address this silence. This code of silence acts as a double victimisation where the family not only loses a son but also the chance for the possibility of justice. ''There is a possibility of enormous communication when you project contemporary images onto historic monuments. We should be able to call those monuments into question, to ask them what they think about what is happening today, and ask ourselves if we still believe in the ideals of those monuments. We should even be able to make those monuments shocked and astonished.''[24]

In projecting parts of the tape featuring relatives talking about their murdered sons and daughters, he converted the monument into a proverbial megaphone turning its façade into a living being, changing its shape as a base from which the words of its citizens can be heard. Wodiczko, through the medium of video projection gave a voice to the silently suffering and in through his aesthetic vision a witness for the world to see.[25]

Having said that though, it is important for me to focus on the long term impact of trauma studies on how its influence on culture, collective memory and its contextualisation in history. The intent is to explore both ‘the very tension between textualisation and contextualisation’.[26]

The hurt and anger of ‘The Partition’ of India and Pakistan still reverberates 70 years since the event and has resulted in a deeply divided country with strong prejudices on both sides of the divide. Over 2 million people were killed and 14 million people displaced from their homes and had to be put up in refugee camps. It is a wound that never heals and since most people from that generation have died with their trauma there is prejudice and vitriol transferred to the next generation to take on an abstract anonymous fog of negativity. Yet like in India and also on the world stage, it does not feature as an event to be mourned or remembered.

The concept of post modernism took shape with thinkers like Jacques Derrida writing about the dilution of the values that we held as gospel with the fallout of the Second World War, especially the Holocaust. Everything that was considered as true, objective and peerless was questioned. Values that were held dear and in high regard as far as the ideas towards progress, codes of conduct, moral values, rules in society were set up for re-evaluation and recalibration. The Holocaust marks the turning point in the way the world looked at society as a whole and eclipsed all other stories. With the US and Europe being in centre stage after the World War and with so many academic studies done by Jewish scholars it was but natural to be held as the default for trauma studies.

Interest in scientific and cultural research on trauma studies was centred around people, events and stories involved with the Holocaust and thus narrowing the contextualisation of trauma studies to a largely white, Western European one. The need now more than ever to look beyond and understand humanity as a whole and also understand the psychological factors described in the essay like un-representability, belated reaction times and recurring flashbacks to be able to help trauma victims everywhere.

Kamila Shamsie the award winning British Pakistani author had in her valedictorian speech at Yale University spoke about how western authors have shied away from writing about or including people from non-western cultures is for the fear of ‘appropriation’. This is because of the history of stereotyping of non western characters in books that have made contemporary western authors think of it as taboo to write about non western issues. This has resulted in treating all non-western peoples as ‘others’. She recognizes that “writers implicated in certain power structures have been guilty of writing fiction which supports, justifies and props up those power structures.”[27] She is also sympathetic to “the concerns of people who feel that for too long stories have been told about them rather than by them.”[28] But According to Shamsie, worry about appropriation is no excuse to leave out from dealing with the wider world. She urges writers (and artists I would extrapolate) “to write differently, to write better, to critique the power structures rather than propping them up, to move beyond stereo-type  .  .  .”[29] She ends her essay by voicing her suspicion that the more fundamental problem is a lack of empathy with the rest of the world: “you just don’t care very much about us.”

Second point I want to make is the fetishizing and the commodification of pain. The ethics involved with using other people’s pain and tragedies in creating an art experience and to politicise personal views is complex. The Sensations exhibition in 1987 featured Marcus Harvey’s Myra a large portrait of the child serial killer Myra Hindley made with handprints of young children (casts of children’s hands). When asked "I don't want to produce work that is a pleasant distraction, then you move on to something else. I would actually like it to stop their day. To make it an encounter."[30]The size of the painting is a signifier in itself that it has monumental proportions with 11 feet by 9 feet. The work is full of ‘signifiers’ with Hindley’s face literally made from the handprints of the group from which her victims were selected. The idea that she is indelibly marked by her criminality and can never erase the traces of her victims and ‘their hands reach out from their graves in reproach and accusation.’[31]

This exhibition was held at the Royal Academy at a time when it was in serious financial trouble and with the negative media attention and curiosity it garnered the Royal Academy had a box office show guaranteed. Inspite of heavy security in anticipation of vandalism the painting was damaged by members of the public throwing eggs and coloured ink on it. It was later restored before being sold to Charles Saatchi for £11,000 who further sold it for much more to a collector.


I chose to research and write about this essay to see if art could find a visual language for lived experience of pain and tragedy (whether personal or collective) that normally defies description. The thing that artists are trying to achieve here is an ‘intervention’ by slipping into the liminal space that lies between both the body or bodies in pain and the artist AND the viewer of the artwork and the artist. The artist thus has to navigate through the psyches of the traumatised mind to allow them to look at themselves from the ‘outside’ and to be the ‘witness’ of that, understand and translate that reality into an artwork that in turn acts as the scared space between the viewer and the artist. The piece of work whether it is an installation, a projection, a performance, film or sculpture is finally a conversation between the subjects on whom it is based and the viewer ideally in a seamless way.

Any work that involves memory and the psyche has to have a visceral presence in the here and now…in the present. The indescribability and the utter subjectiveness of the nature of physical pain, the haunting nature of psychological pain means that through the artistic intervention the past can be looked at with a different perspective. To produce a sense of ‘empathy’ yet understand that they cannot truly understand as a viewer who has the privilege of being a spectator. What an artist can hope for is to produce an affect and a reaction by visual imagery, body language, verbal and written texts, sounds and even silence. Rather than mistakenly trying to find resolution, promoting absolution, artists approach their works as attempts to keep the dialogue open, promoting better understanding of the past along with opening a path towards healing. There is an overpowering presence of a traumatic past but there is also hope, a much-needed space for new ideas and new worlds to take shape. One that could still be uncertain and painful but something that could be harnessed towards a healthier mental state of mind, body and community spirit.


Scarry, Elaine. The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)

Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony. Cries of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis and history (Routledge London 1922)

Barker, Pat. Regeneration (UK: penguin 1992)

Linda Gantt, The encyclopaedia of trauma (Thousand Oaks: Sage publications, 2012)

Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (Stanford university press: California, 2015)

Das, Veena. Life and words: violence and the descent into the ordinary (California: University of California press, 2006)

Pollock, Griselda. After Affect After Image: trauma and the aesthetic transformation in the virtual museum (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013)

Creed, Barbara. Horror and the monstrous-feminine: an imaginary abjection (London: Routledge 1983)

Nelson, Maggie. The art of cruelty (New York: WW Norton and Co, 2012)

Dawes, James. The world we may know: Bearing witness to atrocity (US: Harvard Univ Press 2009)

Woolf, Virginia. On being ill (London: Paris Press 2002)

Salzman, Liza. Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006)

Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The logic of sensation ( London: Continuum 2003)

Online Journals

Kamila Shamsie ‘The Storytellers of Empire’

Ken Shulman ‘ART; A Monument to Mothers and Lost Children

CathyCaruth ‘Recapturing the Past’

SuzannaRadstone ‘Trauma Theory: Context Politics ethics’ (2007)

Tom Lundborg. Lindborg ‘The Folding of Trauma: Architecture and the Politics of Rebuilding Ground Zero. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political (vol. 37, no. 3, 2012, pp. 240–252)

Karen Hardy ‘Marc Quinn freezes his own blood in a self portrait with a difference’

Maria Frederika Malmstrom ‘Gender, Agency and embodiment theories in relation to space’ ( 2019)

Carol Nahra ‘Documenting Women's Rites: An Interview with Filmmaker Kim Longinotto’, International documentary association (Jan 1 2004)

[1]Maria Frederika Malmstrom, ‘Gender, Agency and embodiment theories in relation to space (2019) [2] Carol Nahra ‘Documenting Women's Rites: An Interview with Filmmaker Kim Longinotto’, International documentary association (Jan 1 2004) [3] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain The making and the unmaking of the World (NY Oxford University Press 1985) [4] Linda Gantt, The encyclopaedia of trauma (Thousand Oaks: Sage publications, 2012) [5] A commentator on Radio 4 even said that the toppling of Colston statue has to be treated as a performance and a performance of so much significance that it needs to be nominated for the Turner Prize! [6] Veena Das ‘Language and words : Violence and the descent into the ordinary’ (California; University of California Press, 2006) [7] Elaine Scarry, ‘The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) [8] Ibid [9] [10] PTSD was first studied after soldiers who came back injured after the war started showing symptoms that they themselves could not understand why. They were physically fine but had undergone a change in personality or had bouts of behavior quite uncharacteristic of their personalities. [11] Pat Barker, Regeneration (UK: penguin 1992) [12] Griselda Pollock, After Affect After Image: trauma and the aesthetic transformation in the virtual museum (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013) [13] Doris Salcedo, A Work in Mourning, (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Chicago University Press, 2015) [14] Tom Lundborg, The Folding of Trauma: Architecture and the Politics of Rebuilding Ground Zero. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 37, no. 3, 2012, pp. 240–252. JSTOR, [15] Giles Deleuze, Foucault (London: The Athlone press 1988) [16] Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Cotemporary Art (Stanford university press: California, 2015) [17] p.56 [18] Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Cotemporary Art (Stanford university press: California, 2015) [19] [20] [21] Liza. Salzman, Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006) [22] Ibid. [23] Ibid [24] [25] There has been a lot of debate that has been ongoing about the politics and therefore real effectiveness of memorials and monuments. With the confederate statues being brought down with the Black Lives Matter protests it makes it more pertinent to understand what they stand for. From formal museums to ephemeral collection of flowers, notes and pictures societies find ways to harness memories from the past to learn lessons to not repeat the same mistakes. Memorialising also can be a powerful way of contesting memories and helping in forging new identities. The flip side of course is that many times memorials honour ‘victors’ or the people in power at the time of building them and neglect the point of view of the ‘losers’. Memories of the past are used divide communities, fan ethnic tensions and increase grievances. In short ‘Memorials represent a complex nexus between politics, trauma, collective memory and public art’.[25] As Susan Sontag in her essay ‘On the pain of others’ writes that in so far as we feel sympathy for others’ suffering, we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering in the first place. ‘Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as impotence’ [26] Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub Testimony. Cries of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis and history (Routledge London 1922) [27] [28] [29] Ibid. [30] [31]


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