Dots and Dashes, Crumbs and Ashes: Traces of Trauma’s Abstractions

Kathleen McQueen, GCAS Institute of Critical PhilosophyLiz Park, Curator and Writer

In "Dots and Dashes, Crumbs and Ashes" by Kathleen MacQueen and Liz Park, artistic abstractions take shape in the uncanny spaces left over by catastrophes. In their discussion of the works by Gwenessa Lam and María Elena Álvarez they show two inverse modes of making meaning of these spaces of catastrophe, and of ‘deploying abstraction as a silent resistance to the inscrutable nature of trauma.’ While Lam fills the voids with ghosts and shadows of lives lived there, evoking memories of loss, Álvarez uses the empty spaces as places of refuge, which she layers and re-populates with remnants and scraps and detritus of life in Venezuela in the aftermath of Hugo Chavez’ death in 2013. MacQueen’s reading of Álvarez’ work focuses on trauma as a disturbance in the ability of engagement with this 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. 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 unfathomable violence in the world beyond. 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 Guangdong 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 reconstruction.

Keywords: Gwenessa Lam, María Elena Álvarez, trauma, memory, contemporary art, violence

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