The Nobody in a Field of Abstraction
OTTO DIX, Wounded Solider
Claudia suffers from memory loss and mild dissociation caused during an incident she cannot recall. The only physically obvious wounds she manifested at first were damaged knees; but then her memory problems surfaced when she was accused of disobeying orders. In fact, she simply forgot what she was told to do. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI).
“Significant Injury: War, Medicine, and Empire in Claudia’s Case”
There is meat in this face, an explosion of vivid abstraction. Meat is the nobody; the abstracting of the once lived. In war, soldiers who are sent to the front of the battle to distract are called “meat shields.” Otto Dix, gunner, survivor of three unimaginable years in the trenches of World War I, experienced the everyday transformation of flesh into meat yet somehow did not succumb to the paralysis of the newly named shell shock. No mumbling, distracted, suicidal, half-there Septimus Smith (Woolf’s shell shocked character in Mrs. Dalloway), he returned with his art—made in the trenches—and spent the years after the war continuing to produce. He was a volunteer who enlisted out of curiosity, “to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it.”
The body as package, skin reining in the chaos of internal organs. War is about ruining that package, ripping through it, until the body is meat. One can’t represent war, although many try, most recently Steve Mumford in his paintings as an embedded journalist in Iraq. His work, mostly of the Iraqi casualties, is bland and listless, filtered through with phantasms of tragedy and heroism like his hero Winslow Homer. He illustrates a war whose traumas—Traumatic Brain Injury or, PTSD—are invisible. In an essay on war and wounds, Jennifer Terry tells us of a recent veteran named Claudia Carreon who can no longer remember. She uses a PDA as her memory and looks at photos to locate herself as self, mother, and wife. Representation, versus direct experience, is all she has of herself. Yet representation is precisely what the wars since Desert Storm have all lacked. The shock-and-awe pictorialism of Desert Storm was like a bad sci-fi movie inspired by a literal reading of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Today, even the experience of the very soldiers who fought it is lost, hidden, or hardly acknowledged. Veterans return and are supposed to just blend in with civilians. Recently a veteran told me of what it is like to sit on the subway looking like everyone else while the traumatic images cycling through his head crash through his mind. Couple this with the fact that only two million out of 314,097,581 Americans have experienced recent wars firsthand. Like TBI or PTSD, contemporary war is an effect whose cause is wiped out, negated, or buried deep in the mind.
Which is what made seeing Otto Dix at the Neuegalerie several years ago so overwhelming. Here we see and feel war, for indeed World War I was about the visible wound. Louise Bourgeois has spoken about how haunted she was as a child by the amputees and disfigured faces she saw. With Dix you see ripped and disfigured faces but more, his work tracks an entire change in human perception, i.e., the Dada-inflected, new objectivity-expressionism of his surrealist-realism. (Dix defies art historical categories.) In his work, there is no redemption. His portraits couldn’t be more harsh and malignant—faces etched with fatigue and abuse such as the prostitutes who look as wizened and worn as the very sex they engage in. Used, abused, Dix’s own trauma lives in his use of line—an erratic, unfriendly line that rips the outlines of bodies instead of containing them. Shell shock was one of the inventions of World War I, but, unlike the veterans of today, Dix seems never to have suffered from it. In fact, it is what he exposes instead of represses that hits us so hard now: that face, half of it an awkward graphite shadow of any psychological self, the other a burbling burst of colored abstraction. The face opened to itself, exposing a world we have almost forgotten except in movies and TV shows: blood, gore, a frame ripped of personality entirely. Today the meat we eat is an abstraction, as is the sheer tactility of war. Dix could never have envisioned our drone war where soldiers living in suburbia use joy sticks to kill, but in “Wounded Veteran” he portrays the beginnings of this very process—of the wound as the nobody in a field of abstraction.
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.