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Katherine Akey - Horror in the Abstract

Horror in the Abstract

Katherine Akey

I’ve been thinking a lot about the reaction of some Americans to the ongoing health crisis -- one of rejection and trivialization. Though they do not represent a majority, the extreme of their stance has brought them an outsized presence in media and on the internet. Living in a major city, and having the majority of my friends living in others like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, has meant that the crisis has felt very present to me for months now. A mentor from graduate school lost his husband early in April, and that was the first of many instances of hospitalization or loss that are threaded throughout my community. 

How can we understand this contrary attitude of our fellow countrymen? I don’t mean to try to understand the fringe theories here -- the conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates and 5G-- or to fully untangle the confusing mess that is partisanship and social media echo chambers. I mean for us to think about the abstraction of this threat, a threat that can enter your body, co-opt you for its purposes, and use you to spread -- all without even causing symptoms. How could you carry in your mind that this is real, in your state, see the images of overrun hospitals in New York on television, hear the harrowing first person stories of loss and survival -- and shrug it off?

There is an interesting anecdote in Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others that may help us understand. 

“A citizen of Sarajevo, a woman of impeccable adherence to the Yugoslav ideal, whom I met soon after arriving in the city the first time in April 1993, told me: “In October 1991 I was here in my nice apartment in peaceful Sarajevo when the Serbs invaded Croatia, and I remember when the evening news showed footage of the destruction of Vukovar, just a couple of hundred miles away, I thought to myself ‘Oh, how horrible,’ and switched the channel… it’s normal. It’s human.” Wherever people feel safe-- this was her bitter, self-accusing point -- they will be indifferent.”

There’s a quote that I can’t quite recall the provenance of, scribbled across the front of a sketchbook of mine amongst other phrases about the conflict that struck me. I must have read it in one of the many (hundreds?) of history books on my shelves -- but it has defined my explorations of WW1 in my art practice for years now. 

“Minds fail to grasp horror in the abstract"

WW1 is a conflict of extremes. The sheer volume of men and material expended is staggering -- in some battles on a single day, tens of thousands of men died. A city’s worth of men. On a single day, in some battles. Plural -- days where fifty, sixty thousand men died occurred over and over. 

That’s a pretty devastating thing to hear -- but do you feel it? Do you grok it?

I’ve struggled with this issue in my art practice. How do I get you, a viewer, to engage with a particular aspect of this conflict in a way that is affecting when it is a complex collection of events of massive proportion and incomprehensible cruelty? In the past I turned to information graphics for inspiration -- I wanted to lean on those huge numbers, to use their size to power the work. But their size is not a strength, it makes them unwieldy. These designers are skilled at taking this data and making it decipherable -- even beautiful -- but I don’t think their products can yield the kind of intense connection that a well wrought piece of art could. 

Take even a particularly excellent example -- probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, the below map by Charles Joseph Minard. It portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon's army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales. 

It is simple but provides a great amount of detail -- yielding a more complex understanding as you spend more time with it, while still giving an accurate understanding of the situation faced by the retreating army through a quick glance. 

In my practice, I have fled as far from these unwieldy figures as possible; their dehumanizing character neutralized any storytelling power and empathy building I aimed for in my work. Instead, I went for the most human source possible, the oral histories and first person records of the conflict. It’s in these materials that I find the power so lacking in the numbers -- rather than “60,000 Birtish men were counted casualties in a single day at the Battle of the Somme in 1916”, honing in on a moment in time, a lived experience, brings an emotional intensity that the figure 60,000 just can’t. Here is one example, a fittingly a story about the incredible capacity some humans have to put others before themselves:

“...I had not gone many yards when I met a very young private of the 12th Londons. One of his arms was hanging limp and was, I should think, broken in two or three places. He was cut and bleeding about the face, and was altogether in a sorry plight. He stopped me and asked me, ‘Is there a dressing station down there, mate?’ pointing along the way I had come. I replied, ‘Yes, keep straight on down the trench. It’s a good way down. But there’s a stretcher bearer only just gone along. Shall I see if I can get him for you?’ His reply I shall never forget, ‘Oh, I don’t want him for me. I want someone to come back with me to get my mate. He’s hurt!’”

--Signaller William Smith, Royal Engineers Signals attached to 168th Brigade, 56th Division

The lack of apparent empathy for our fellow countrymen in this crisis continues to baffle me. I don’t think I will ever understand it. But this situation has reminded me of the difficulties when trying to communicate the pain of others, and how essential it is to find ways to lay bare the human in those suffering out of our sight. 


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