On Trauma

by Susan Tallman

January 2017

In September 2015 we published an issue about artworks made in situations of crisis—internment camps, police states, the incinerated ruins of Dresden. Each of these situations had a terminus: eventually the camp gates opened, the Wall came down, and the world went on. For many who live through it, however, trauma has way of sticking around, of superimposing the excoriating past on the present, of never ever really being over. Traumatic memory refuses to be filed away in our chronological mental archives; it lurks furtively in the primitive corners of the brain, waiting for a chance to burn the house down. That shade is our current subject.

If trauma is not quite an equal opportunity employer (the poor almost inevitably suffer more), it is catholic in its manifestations: war and pestilence, assault and accident, systemic oppression and random cruelty, the myriad disasters that can suddenly overtake an ordered life. The authors and artists represented here consider all these visitations, and also the strategies of recuperation that enable us to move on.

In this sense Eric Avery’s Art in Art in Print project, which runs as a flipbook through these pages, is emblematic of the issue as a whole. A doctor and an artist, Avery understands trauma as both a physiological process and a visual subject. His bowl-shaped woodcut of a brain is also a temporary garden, a metaphor for neural regeneration. Similarly, in his earlier work on AIDS, discussed here by Marjorie Cohn, Avery used physical agency as a weapon against incapacitating terror, filling galleries with condom-filled piñatas in the shape of viruses.

An effective manipulator of human behavior, trauma is also a time-honored instrument of politics. Kate McCrickard examines William Kentridge’s attempts to map the moral tangle of Apartheid and the “extraordinary shock” experienced by a child who discovers his world is built on a crime. Shaoquian Zhang investigates Chinese woodcuts at the end of the second Sino-Japanese war, when political allegiances led artists to focus on either present suffering or the idyllic future; and Rhiannon Paget shows how Japanese print artists transformed that war and its predecessors into visually compelling games of chance. The Combat Paper Project, profiled by Jared Ash, operates in the aftermath of military service, both materially and psychologically.

Meanwhile, this issue’s exhibition and book reviews survey the competing forces behind the production of art and the varied visions of what a print “should” be, from the aesthetic populism of Associated American Artists (Art for Every Home, reviewed by Brian Cohen) to the enlistment of art in the service of  l’état c’est moi absolutism (Kingdom of Images, reviewed by Victoria Sancho Lobis).

In his review of “Gérald Cramer et ses artistes” at Geneva’s Musée d’art et histoire, Paul Coldwell considers the pivotal role of the print publisher in 20th-century Europe. At the Whitworth Gallery, the exhibition “Marcantonio Raimondi and Raphael” (reviewed by Genevieve Verdigel) affirms Marcantonio as more than just Raphael’s burin-wielding Mini-Me, opening broader questions about collaboration and originality.

Peter Briggs discusses the memoirs of Garo Antreasian and the professionalization of artistic lithography in the United States, while “Hanga Now: Contemporary Japanese Printmakers” (reviewed by Carand Burnett) looks at the marriage between Japanese aesthetics and Western notions of the print as a personal, gestural expression.

Finally, this issue’s Prix de Print, selected by Trevor Winkfield, returns in a sense to trauma. Thorsten Dennerline’s book of lithographs is set with Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1915 poem “A Cloud in Trousers,” in which the writer braids the existential tumult of the early 20th century into the personal story of an unhappy love affair:

of sacrilege, 
have you seen 
the worst horror of all—
my face, 

am utterly calm? 

Private traumas occur incessantly, but 2016 was remarkable as a year of public trauma—millions grieved the passing of David Bowie and Prince as if they had lost intimate friends. Millions more have found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly mourning the electoral defeat of the principles of evidence and reason that have guided social and technological progress for the past three centuries. The world changed course. And fear—visceral, debilitating fear—has taken up residence in cities and institutions that once fancied themselves beacons of hope to the darker places on earth.

This issue was planned long before these events took place. If, on the one hand, it can be seen to document the persistence of suffering, it can also taken as a guidebook to resilience: trauma is imposed by circumstance; the resolution is in our hands.