The beauty of Trauma

Katharine Dowson, Radiotherapy Patient 10, Glass, 2011, Series of 3. © Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Trauma, the title of GV art gallery’s current group exhibition, is a word that carries various resonances, none of them benign. Trauma – whose etymology stems from the Greek “wound” – can be an injury or shock wrought upon the body, on the mind, or the environment; its impact may be external and visible, or internal, microcosmic and hidden from immediate view. Its effects can be devastating, having an immediate impact or one that is only revealed over the long-term.

Such a theme would not in the first instance seem likely to make for a particularly enjoyable exhibition. And yet the pieces on show at GV art are often exquisitely beautiful, sometimes excruciatingly poignant, and occasionally darkly morbid.

A work which falls into this latter category is Severed Threads, an arresting wall mounted collage/assemblage by David Marron. The piece shows the grim and chaotic detritus left in the wake of a fatal car accident. This subject is an especially uncomfortable one given that it depicts that most clichéd example of our inner voyeur; the car crash is a site of horror and yet we are ineluctably drawn to look at it. In the centre of the work are the clothes of the victim, torn to get access to the injured parts. Scattered around this synecdoche of the absent damaged body is a panoply of paramedic’s tools – syringes, surgical gloves, IV bags. In the midst of these objects that cruelly remind us of the brutal reality of a road death, there are other intriguing elements relating to realms of myth and faith; in the centre of the ripped shirt there is a blood-red rose, suggestive of internal bleeding and at the same time a reference to the legend of St. Francis of Assisi, whose blood miraculously turned to roses when it dripped from his stigmata. To one side of the absent body is the word “Atropos”, one of the three Fates of Greek myth, who chose the time and manner of each mortal’s death and used her shears to cut the threads of life (hence the work’s title). By apposite coincidence, Atropos is the etymological root of the drug Atropine, injected to increase the heart rate. These myth and faith based elements poignantly remind us of how some people turn to such belief systems in order to comprehend and process the apparently random violence of such a death.

The intensely personal aspects of the horror of trauma is poignantly played out in Hollow Muscle, Andrew Krasnow’s sculpture of a heart made from human skin, the material from which many of his most well-known works are created. This slightly leathery and discomfitingly hairy rendition of the human heart is a depiction of the fragility within the very core and motor of our body. It has deeply moving associations for the artist, whose father survived three heart attacks and whose chest, scarred from a heart operation, Krasnow recalls nestling against as a young child, listening to his father’s heart beating.

Another exquisitely poignant sculpture is Radiotherapy Patient 10 by Katharine Dowson. This translucent glass bust was cast from the face of a patient undergoing radiotherapy for cancer and appears to show the patient frozen in a silent scream. This haunting portrait of pain and disease, in that most fragile of materials, eloquently speaks of human frailty.

Anais Tondeur, Hebarium of surviving specimens from the Exclusion zone: 6 - Geranium Chinum. Photogram, 2011, C-Print on RAG Paper, Edition 1 of10+1AP,43x33cm Location: Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl, Ukraine Radiation level : 1.7 microsieverts per hour. © Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

These works and others such as the self-portraits of Alzheimer-sufferer William Utermohlen explore the impact of trauma on the individual, both bodily, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But the show also contains work that scrutinizes examples of trauma on a more global scale, most notably in the photographs of Anais Tondeur and the glass sculptures of Luke Jerram. These works are also the most exquisitely beautiful, setting up an intriguing tension between their subject and execution. Anais Tondeur’s photographs document the devastating long-term impact on flora and fauna within the 30km exclusion zone around the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. These exquisite sepia-tinged images, showing the mutations in botanical specimens caused by nuclear radiation, use a technique harking back to the earliest botanical photograms such as those made by William Henry Fox Talbot. Talbot’s cutting-edge technology used light to capture images of the natural world. By exploiting this historic technique Tondeur executes an ingenious and bitter irony: the silhouetted plants mirror the extreme exposure of light of an atomic explosion – itself formerly a cutting edge technology – but here it exposes the catastrophic effects of radiation upon the natural world. Whilst one is transfixed by their beauty, the disaster that lies behind them is all too present.

Luke Jerram, T4 Bacteriophage, Glass, 2011, Edition 3 of 5, 30 x 40. © Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Luke Jerram’s Glass Microbiology are impossibly gorgeous objects; these are representations of viruses – at a scale 1 million times larger than the viruses themselves – masquerading as alluring glass sculptures. Once one has been able to overcome the unseemly covetousness that they arouse one can reflect on what they represent; one, which resembles an alarmingly large insect, is the T4 Bacteriophage. Interestingly this is one virus that may be beneficial rather than injurious – it infects the E.coli bacteria and has recently been studied as a potential therapy against multi-drug resistant strains of other bacteria. Other viruses given sculptural form here – SARS and HIV – cause trauma first at a cellular level, and their insidious impact is somehow more acutely palpable when expressed in such a pure, clean and ravishing form.

In his book Enduring creation: art, pain and fortitude Nigel Spivey writes that “Art feeds on what befalls us. Art arrives at the sites of agony; art agonizes there. And art keeps us going, in our wounded state.” It seems to me that the works in this exhibition are compelling testaments to the truth of these words.

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About ruthgarde

I am a writer and curator based in London.
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