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Trauma, Art, and Healing

The Barrick Museum's D.K. Sole on UNLV's role in ensuring that "we never forget."

Arts and Culture  |  Oct 2, 2018  |  By D.K. Sole
female dancer surrounded by yellow material

Artist Tamar Ettun in her yellow inflatable from “Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly, Part Yellow.” The Barrick Museum opens its new exhibit, Jubilation Inflation, by Tamar Ettun during the UNLV Art Walk on Oct. 12. The exhibit will run through Dec. 15. (Courtesy of Tamar Ettun)

An event like the October 1st shooting is amorphous; it knocks us away from things we know how to describe. 

Is this why people afterward turned to the arts — to acts that concentrate and focus expression? They turned to storytelling, to cross-building, to messages painted on rocks in a landscaped garden; to the Las Vegas Portraits Project, the Art of Healing Mural, and the mass of stained glass angels that went on display at the Clark County Government Center in September.

After a traumatic event, our need to restore order can lead us into habits of “stuckness.” The arts — safe avatars of change — can help to bring us out. Giving us a chance to make meaning with our hands, they bypass the fear that prevents us speaking. The immediacy of creation grounds us in the present. The arts welcome vulnerability and transform it into strength. They can channel the rituals of habit into new pathways. 

Looking back at the 20th century, we see the rise of artists who have confronted trauma by making it tangible. Artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, and Alberto Burri have offered us tools that help us to say, “Yes, my pain might have a face after all. That face is not overwhelming. It can be revealed.”

Everywhere around the world — from Europe’s pietàs to the hollow log coffins of Australia’s Yolngu — we observe that change can be given a material form. Often, that form takes the shape of a body. Sometimes the body is only suggested, as it is in Burri’s wounded canvases. 

At other times it is overt. An illuminated body in Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814) discovers an expressive gesture in the presence of death. We might argue that this figure is acting out the vocation of an artist.

By making the arts visible, UNLV helps our community imagine what this kind of material language might look like for us. By creating a local form of expression, we expand our perception of who we are. The university’s exhibition spaces and lecture series give our artists and art students access to practitioners from outside the state, showing them how they might communicate their ideas to the rest of the world. 

When UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art selected the New York-based Israeli artist Tamar Ettun for its largest fall exhibition, it was aware of the multifaceted ways her work dealt with the body as a site where traumatic change could be understood. Her show, Jubilation Inflation, looks at bodies as sources of action and endurance. She draws on the work of Yvonne Rainer and other artists who pointed the way forward out of “stuckness” by treating our everyday movements as a new text we can explore. She quotes a statement Rainer published in 1968 when she was faced with the horrible ephemerality of a televised war crime: “My body remains the enduring reality.”

Answering back to the brutality she experienced in a paratrooper regiment after conscription into the Israeli military, Ettun sewed parachute cloth into a series of sculptural rooms where visitors could wrap themselves in colored light. “I observed closely how dealing with trauma and PTSD increases rigidity and shuts down communication, as conversation requires a flexible position and contains the potential to change and be changed by another person,” she says. “This personal experience led to some of the themes of my practice today — for instance, my resistance to simple binaries of right and wrong.”

How does she escape the restriction of binaries? “Through the fluidity of play and the senses.” 

What can we take from this? If we disagree with Tamar Ettun’s thesis, at least we are being given the tools to build our own. “Never forget” is easy to say, but how do we manifest that remembrance? Through the arts. Through the arts, UNLV helps us articulate our lives.