Dots and Dashes, Crumbs and Ashes

Kathleen's desk_Maria Elena's letter_sm“Dots and Dashes, Crumbs and Ashes: Traces of Trauma’s Abstraction” is Liz Park’s and Kathleen MacQueen’s contribution to volume II of Intervalla (2014/15). According to editors, Johanna Fassl and Caroline Wiedmer, volume II, Trauma, Abstraction, and Creativity,

[…]takes a comprehensive look at the topic and opens new channels of discussion [into trauma]. With the help of [contributions by Harun Farocki, Cathy Caruth, Klitsa Antoniou, and others], we take a fresh look at the conflicts in Germany and Northern Ireland; we finally put Cyprus on the map; and respond to the more recent wars and national conflicts in Venezuela, Iraq, and Syria. The volume is anchored in psychotherapy and psychology and offers truly interdisciplinary perspectives by featuring fine art, literature, theater, documentary film, Hollywood, and television. It is also clear that technology in photography, film, and digital manipulation processes has become increasingly important to the discussion of trauma.

Maria Elena Álvarez, Pórtico, 2013, acrylic on linen.

Maria Elena Álvarez, Pórtico, 2013, acrylic on linen.

MacQueen’s and Park’s contribution observe how artistic abstractions take shape in the uncanny spaces left over by catastrophes. In their discussion of artworks by Gwenessa Lam and Maria Elena Álvarez, the authors show two inverse modes of making meaning from these spaces of disaster, and of “deploying abstraction as a silent resistance to the inscrutable nature of trauma.” MacQueen’s reading of Álvarez’ work focuses on trauma as a disturbance in the ability to engage with a world turned upside down, and the creative process as a means to stay on the right side of the dual processes of acting out and working through trauma.

Gwenessa Lam, Falling Tower, from Mongrel Histories, 2016

Gwenessa Lam, Falling Tower, from Mongrel Histories, 2016

If, as MacQueen argues, Álvarez ultimately creates spaces of hope and permeability in a praxis that draws from her immediate politicized context, Park describes the spaces represented by Lam as closed and inward-looking, pressed together by the unfathomable violence taking place in a world beyond the visual frame of artistic vision. What remains in the closed spaces are remnants of violent history and destruction: blinded windows, the outlines of Chinese vases blasted in a ray of light, floating, mangled objects, and the fragments of diaolou, fortified towers built largely in Guandong with the hard-earned cash of overseas Chinese labor in the 19th century. Lam’s response is not to a personal trauma, but rather to a shared culture of violence. Both artists, then by filling the spaces they visualize with the detritus of trauma, re-invest them with the possibility of re-construction.

We invite you to read our contribution and investigate the work of Maria Elena Álvarez and Gwenessa Lam.