When I get overwhelmed looking at all of the things I have to do, I try and picture the tasks as a cluster of tangled necklaces. And with each effort I make to chip away at the work, I figure a new slip in the knots, loosening the chains until eventually the mass slides away into each individual necklace. It helps me see that the bigger problem, my overwhelm, consists of multiple, much more tangible, and do-able tasks.
I’ve heard people call this moment in time ‘transformative’, which my cynical self feels is a very positive spin on ‘traumatic’. I do not see a way of moving forward as if things have stayed the same when really, we have seen too much change to ever go back to a way of thinking that we once had. We are living in a period of intense collective trauma, whether we admit that to ourselves or not. And this trauma can have repercussions across a lifetime if it is not adequately recognized, communicated, and worked through. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk talks about how the body processes and holds trauma and how ‘In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.’ This is where art and making come in. By externalizing the body’s trauma through art, that trauma becomes more accessible to learn from and the person can start to re-learn how to navigate that trauma in a safer way.
It is hard to vocalize the often-complicated emotions that come with living through an intense period of upheaval and loss. In art there are tones, colours, textures, and metaphors that can help us to communicate our individual experiences and translate them into something that is coherent and, once expressed, expelled. In this communication, there is a healing. In studying art history and in looking back over the last year, one question frequently surfaces to the front of my mind: what will what we have gone through look like to future generations? And I don’t mean that in terms of news reports, charts, and figures. Rather, in terms of what we will leave behind in terms of the art we made in coming to terms with a new normal.
The processes of creation within oscillating ideas and collective attitudes in the Weimar Republic, established between World Wars I and II is particularly interesting to look at in relation to how artists communicated a collective reckoning with tragedy, complicity, and political upheaval. Thousands of men were returning from World War I in states of not only physical, yet mental fragmentation. Victims of shellshock were presenting with recurring violent flashbacks, insomnia, tremors, and other excruciating symptoms. They were irrevocably altered, and the question arose of just how much was truly lost in the war. A society had to start to make sense of the senseless.
Dada, which started in Zürich and spread to Köln and Berlin, embraced the incoherent in quite a nihilistic way. There was no ambition to make sense. Rather, it highlighted the seemingly nonsensical. The style of Dada artists like Georg Grosz and Otto Dix evolved into what G.F. Hartlaub called ‘New Objectivity’. These artists rebelled against the violent, distorted style of their contemporaries and instead chose to communicate their disillusionment through highly realistic, often perturbing satirical paintings. And simultaneously, the Bauhaus institution and movement evolved. Walter Gropius’ ambition to integrate artistic disciplines with constructional techniques. Clinical order. Striding steps towards ergonomic design and clean-cut lines. A desire to rationalize. Prototype designs were created by students that would have the potential to then be mass-produced.
These were all reactions to a wider state of collective trauma and, in my opinion, efforts at recalibrating, stabilising. Working through the intensity of emotions and looking towards a new way of existing as a way of processing trauma.
The question of how we are going to process this trauma is an important one. What will this moment sound like? What language will develop? And what pictures? Will we turn towards symbols and references rooted from a past that we recognise, or could we even conclude that these symbols no longer communicate with us and within our wider cultural dialogue in the way they once did? These questions are, though terrifying, so exciting to consider. We are at an impasse socially, culturally, politically, morally, and personally. What will that look like? How is that changing our thoughts, actions, and behaviours?
Humans are doggedly persistent. As strange and as sinister as these present times feel, we will, one day, see the end of them. But the end of the event does not mean the end of the trauma. We need to talk about what we are living through without the fear of judgment. We need to create without the need for what we create to be ‘good’. It just needs to be as close to honest as we can manage. Maybe a century from now, what we will have made together will have a name of its own. Future historians will see what we created, and it will give them a clue as to the resilience and the elasticity of the human psyche.
This piece isn’t a prescription, but an enquiry. Our ideas of self and security have been completely overturned and annihilated. What we have been left with is something very intangible and scary. We have found tangled necklaces in jewellery boxes we had never seen before. What will our process of unravelling and unknotting look like?