The Power Of Art To Confront Donald Trump’s Xenophobia And Bigotry

01/11/2017 10:48 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2017
<i>My Gut Tells Me</i>
Paz Perlman
My Gut Tells Me

In a perverse way, Donald Trump’s xenophobia and bigotry is doing us all a favor by highlighting the dark underbelly that lurks in our collective unconscious.

Those benefitting from the economic prosperity of the last 20 years have found countless distractions to avoid and repress the very fears that the President -Elect is now mining to his personal advantage. 

But as Buddhist philosophy has shown us, it is only by healing the fractures within ourselves, rather than running away from them, that we have a real chance of helping society to place balm on the very wounds that Trump is prodding his short fingers into.

Psychoanalysis has also taught us of the need to recognise the ‘foreigner within,’ to avoid projecting our fear of ourselves onto others.

But how do we go about doing that? One answer is through the arts, which offer a direct route to touching the Void, which to untrained eyes can appear to be a vast, dark and empty space that can just swallow us up.

The Void has been a particular focus of artists ever since the trauma of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Eva Hesse and Antoni Tàpies, have illustrated that leaping into the abyss is not only a poetic concept but has the power to transform society. 

Spanish artist Tàpies, who grew up under the Franco dictatorship, wrote that while contemporary paintings on the Void may appear to be disconnected from society, in reality they “definitely enter into the fundamental problems of life and, consequently, our times. They can be a very effective way to reveal to us a new vision of the world and new ways of life that not only do not contradict progressive political stances, but could actually be their base.”

Those who choose to enter the abyss find at its heart a great paradox. This is not a place where we metaphorically die, but where we are reborn. Louise Bourgeois hinted at this when she embroidered on her 1996 work Return of the Repressed: “I have been to hell and back, and let me tell you, it was wonderful.”

Paul Schimmel, in his book, ‘Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void,’ wrote that “destruction was not just a nihilistic act, and the void was not just a black hole of despair and anxiety, destruction was in a dialectical relationship with creation, and the void was a space of potentiality.”

In my own artistic practice I have experienced the Void as a fountainhead of creativity. By getting in touch with what is hidden from my conscious mind, it is possible to translate universal concepts, such as impermanence and death, into a direct experience. In a similar way to how a tuning fork operates, this can then allow viewers to get in contact with their unconscious and discover their own insights.

While this not knowing can generate fear, my experience is that the lack of solidity in the Void is paradoxically the foundation on which I stand in the world. It is exactly in this place that I find my freedom and a valuable source of inner research. 

The Dutch Axel Vervoordt Gallery, which has developed a special interest in the concept of the Void, suggests that to “enter creative space, the artist must let go of the security of his own physical and psychological limits…..Only when an artist has the courage to dissolve into empty space, into the Void, will he be able to create something genuinely new, essential, yet undogmatic and potentially meaningful to all.”

My first experience of this sense of groundlessness came during a three-month experiment I conducted in New York during summer 2013. I committed to make a work each day, inspired by my experiences. I had no plans, prepared materials or ideas, and allowed Manhattan to provide them and to surprise me in the moment. This resulted in a large body of 2D/3D works as well as street performances.

As the works built up, I recognised a contradiction. While consciously, I was celebrating the joy and sense of lightness of living in such a vibrant city, the works were dark and heavy. In retrospect, I understood this represented a journey into the pain of my own void. I wrote at the time in my diary that “each one of us is wounded and damaged. By getting in touch with this pain, we can come to recognise the scars inside of us can also be the source of great power and beauty.”

Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist, recognized also that it is only by going through our pain, that we can help to heal society, writing that “every one of us shares the supreme ordeal – carries the cross of the redeemer – not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”

So for all of us who feel a sense of despair at Trump’s election victory and are chomping at the bit to take action, perhaps we need to first start coming to terms with our own personal pain. As the old idiom goes, 95% of us want to change the world but only 5% of us are prepared to change ourselves.

By healing ourselves, we will become powerful advocates for a more caring and compassionate society that will hopefully emerge out of the ashes of Trump’s presidency.

Paz Perlman’s solo art exhibition, ‘Before Thought,’ which explores her relationship to the Void, is on view from January 12 to February 19 at the happylucky No 1 gallery in Brooklyn

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