Art in the Aftermath: The Work of Repair

Anna Gibbs

War, terror attacks, exile, states of emergency, natural disasters, transport accidents: we now live it seems, in a more or less continuous state of mediatised emergency and traumatic aftermath.

Many would argue that we are desensitised to both the affects that each of these ought to produce, as well as to the empathy we would otherwise feel for those caught up in disaster by this onslaught of images broadcast, webcast and printed.

Julie Gough
The Lost World (Part 2)  2013
Detail from site specific installation
Courtesy of the artist

Various writers have suggested that we are simply overwhelmed by exposure to this image stream, suffering a traumatic numbing that marks what has been called the ‘death experience’, that is, the replacement of firsthand personal experience by forms of mediatised, vicarious experience that foreclose the sensory impression of the immediate, the shock of the unexpected or the thrill of the surprising thing that unsettles the banality of the everyday. Arguably, an important role for art in this context is the restoration of the reality of experience in the face of the growing unreality of the world.

However, many people — artists and audiences alike — have a firsthand relation to trauma. Viewers might be refugees or migrants (given the radical uprooting migration can entail) watching the wars, arrests and disappearances, the earthquakes or disasters of whatever kind, happening in their homelands, to their families, to people they know or to whom they feel a particular empathy. Or viewers might witness the trauma ongoing in our own Australian backyard. I think here for example, of asylum-seekers held for indeterminate periods of mandatory detention in the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney, or of Aboriginal people who live with the trauma of the Stolen Generations, and beyond that, the dispossession of Aboriginal land and culture. Viewers might ourselves be survivors of child sexual assault or domestic violence memories of which are reawakened by watching news of violent crime such as rape or murder. The sources of trauma are many and varied, and for people who have suffered it, mediatised public culture is something other than spectacle.


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