Empathic Vision

Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art

To identify any art as “about” trauma and conflict potentially opens up new readings, but it also reduces a work to a singular defining subject matter in a fashion that is often anathema to artists, who construe the operations of their work as exceeding any single signifying function. […] This is partly because trauma itself is classically defined as beyond the scope of language and representation; hence, an imagery of trauma might not readily conform to the logic of representation. But it also has to do with the interests of the primary subjects of trauma. If art purports to register the true experience of violence of devastating loss – to be about a clear event – then it lays claim to an experienced that is fundamentally owned by someone. Moreover, it invites a wider audience to partake of this experience in some way.

At the very beginning of this year as I was presenting my detailed plan for my dissertation – and subsequently my practice – I was asked why I was researching something so far away from my own experiences, from a time beyond my own, about women in foreign countries. Until now I’ve worried that art relating to traumatic events should be made by people those traumatic events have impacted, or at least people who can relate to the kinds of oppression the trauma was birthed from. Reading more about the language of trauma and violence within art and how that language doesn’t necessarily adhere to the representation of trauma and violence we understand has helped me understand my place within the discussion.

A form of philosophical realism grounds the notion that art can capture and transmit real experience. This realism sits uneasily with a politics of testimony. I want to propose that such a politics requires of art not a faithful translation of testimony; rather, it calls upon art to exploit its own unique capacities to contribute actively to this politics. […] we cannot limit the function of art – be it pleasure producing or redemptive; what is important is that art itself challenges rather than reinforces the distinction between art (or the realm of imaginative discourse) and the reality of trauma and war.

I’ve considered the possibility of including the actual voices of testimony within my work, however at present it didn’t feel appropriate as I would be combining the actual voices of survivors with a visual representation of their trauma which wasn’t made specifically from their experiences of trauma. Transmitting those two things side by side in this context isn’t appropriate for the politics of testimony. I want for my work to facilitate discussion, to bring light to histories being forced out of collective memory.

Governmental institutions have looked to change the narrative around the ‘comfort women’ issue, through the changing of text books, use of subversive language in their discussions of the issue, political deals made supposedly in the interest of victims, all while not listening to the demands of survivors. I don’t want to join this discussion in a way that adds the issue of not allowing women to use their own voices, but rather to reveal my own understanding of why their voices are being ignored.

Bennett, J. (2005). Empathic vision. Stanford (California): Stanford University Press. (p 3-4)

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