(from the book “I Died In Italy But No One Knows It”, page 49-55, 2010)
I DIED IN ITALY BUT NO ONE KNOWS IT
-Survival, change and trauma treatment in Peter Brandt's art.
“I died in Italy, but no one knows it” is the catastrophic but at the same time subtle statement providing the title of Peter Brandt’s newest art project I Died In Italy But No One Knows It. The title raises an ambiguous wondering and curiosity in the reader, because why would anybody want to talk of himself in the past tense as being dead, and at the same time claim that no one knows it. What have we missed? What has not been understood? What is at stake here?
I Died In Italy But No One Knows It point of departure are the repercussions of Peter Brandt’s personal and traumatic experience of a dramatically violent attack in 2002. During his stay at the Danish Institute in Rome, Brandt was almost killed one evening on his way back from the city, as he was attacked, beaten up and left unconscious on the outskirts of a park by a complete stranger. The perpetrator was never found. A few years later Brandt was diagnosed as having attained brain injury and has since participated in a rehabilitation program at the Centre of Rehabilitation of Brain Injury in Copenhagen.
Peter Brandt has himself said about the incident: “I survived, yes, but everything has changed. This experience has made me explore, re-live, treat and materialize the traumatic
As is subtly hinted at in the title, we are dealing with a statement and a project where reality and the acceptance of said reality collide; where reality, the understanding of reality, and the communication of reality become incompatible. As the title seems to indicate I Died in Italy But No One Knows It is about the loss of self and the world as we know it.
Starting from the identification of the personal traumatic event and the art works included in the exhibition, this essay will discuss the trauma theoretical perspective, the loss of self and the possible or impossible representation in Peter Brandt’s art project I Died In Italy But No One Knows It.
The word trauma stems from Greek and means wound or injury. In medical science trauma is described as a bodily lesion, while in psychology it is used in terms of psychological and emotional suffering. The latter descriptions we have from Sigmund Freud. In Jenseits des Lustprinzips (1920) Freud used the word trauma as a metaphor for the first time, in order to stress that the psyche can be damaged in the same way as our physical body by being subjected to certain harrowing experiences . Freud’s psychological foundation of the traumatic still defines the understanding of trauma today, and has since formed the basis of methods of diagnosing such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
None the less, trauma is still a very complex phenomenon and includes many unknown factors. However, it can be said that trauma is a reaction to situations or experiences where people have their personal boundaries radically crossed without the possibility of saying no. As opposed to more “simple” accidents traumatic experiences usually entail a direct threat to a persons life, physical integrity, or a direct confrontation with violence or death. On the emotional level intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and the threat of personal destruction are common denominators for many traumatised people . Thus the traumatic experience is an exponent of the most extreme helplessness and terror a human being can experience, which provokes catastrophe-reactions, also known as post traumatic stress.
The modern trauma theory divides trauma into four overall phases: chock, reaction, treatment, and new orientation, also known as post traumatic resolution. The first two phases are primarily controlled by the subconscious, while the two last phases have a greater level of consciousness and reflection. This is also why it is within the latter two phases that trauma becomes something that can be communicated and represented. This is emphasised by the American literature- and trauma-scholar Cathy Caruth in her book Unclaimed Experience - Trauma, Narrative and History, where she describes trauma as a delayed reaction to an overwhelming experience, which cannot be assimilated or fully understood as it is taking place, but only within the delayed and repetitive representations . Furthermore, Caruth brings forth the interesting assumption that representations of culture, including the arts, are important tools for the traumatised to advance recognition.
Trauma can be difficult to understand and accept for those afflicted, but in many cases it is even harder to comprehend for the next of kin and others who see no outer signs of change. Which is why there is an insisting need in the traumatised for communication and dialogue, which, according to Caruth, is especially noticeable in the phases of treatment and new orientation. Peter Brandt has indeed been confronted with such an insisting need for communication and understanding during the after-effects of his violent attack. I Died In Italy But No One Knows It is the concrete outward and debate seeking result of that process.
Fragile as silk, hard as rock
The exhibition I Died in Italy But No One Knows It consists of a number of new and older works, presented through several media; photography, sculpture, text on textile, pastel and video. All in either a vibrant suggestive colouration or with a douche and down toned filter as contrast. As for content, the exhibition gives us a clear, personal and expressive insight into the artists traumatised thoughts, feelings, reactions and reflections. And they are not easy to shake off. The works are both hard, sensitive and confrontational.
The introduction to the exhibition is Pain in The Eye; a textile book, sewn in rough silk, written with black Indian ink and presented as page-by-page photographs hung on the wall. In narrative and pragmatic sentences the book describes the sequence of events of the violent attack, the objectifying examination of Brandt at the police station, and the experience of the later reflection on the loss of self-worth and bodily integrity. The entire story is also given a social-cultural perspective. “Violence is” as Brandt himself puts it somewhere in the book, “Something we in our society take for granted, but none the less we refuse to acknowledge its concrete existence, and the fact that it could happen to you”. As an eye opener Pain in The Eye initiates the entire dialogue around unprovoked violence and the isolated, individual trauma. So right from the beginning of the exhibition the audience will experience that the cards are on the table, and Brandt insistently has put foot in the door. This is something you have to consider.
Another textile work, States of Being, is placed on the floor as an airy blanket descended from heaven. The batik looking patterns on the silk blanket is like a desolate and barren desert landscape without growth and without life. In the corners of the blanket Brandt has sewn the words anxiety, anger, depression and isolation. Each word represents phases of the traumatic experience and not least the post traumatic reaction that Cathy Caruth also talks about. In States of Being the process of creation has, according to Brandt himself, played a central part. The silk has been coloured and bleached several times, rinsed under running water, wrung with bare hands and stretched out to dry. This repetitive saturation and cleansing of the material obtains an almost cathartic reference, providing a symbolic statement about the transforming process of identity Brandt has experienced.
A third piece of work, Silenced, also uses textile as a material of reference. The piece is a close-up photograph of the Prada jacket Brandt was wearing while attacked. Next to the photograph it is described, how afterwards the jacket had the bloodstains removed at a dry cleaner by a most discreet staff. Discretion, which is usually considered good service, suddenly becomes a symbol of the complete opposite the deafening silence. “Why doesn’t anyone ask” seems to be the message.
Silenced confronts the viewer, in the same way as the photograph Present Tense, showing a close-up section of Brandt’s bruised eyelid, with the physical, material, perceptive, and visible impression of the trauma. They are each iconic testimonies and proof of the reality of the attack. They not only inform the viewer but are also a confirmation for the artist himself that this event actually happened.
Finally, the use of silk as raw material is also evident in the large text based title work I Died In Italy But No One Knows It, hanging as a monumental and colourful silk collage, where once again the text is written with Indian ink as well as sewn into the fabric. The collage is a mix of the most frequently used clinical terms for trauma and its different phases in between statements, thoughts and dates representing Brandt’s personal process of reaction and emotion. The work has reminiscences of a memorial or an organised collection of permanently imprinted post-its. Words and phrases like violent assault, male bashing, police and fear are mixed in with Prozac, depersonalisation and a headstone with the dates 1966-2002, Brandt’s birth year - and the year of Brandt’s death as the person he was then. Each piece of silk is like a piece in a large puzzle of different states of being that characterize and define the recollection of the trauma. Through this lens the silk, with its fine and fragile threads, has a special meaning and presents itself as a metaphor for the very same vulnerability of the psyche and the recollection.
One of the more concrete works is Anxiety Objects Series (Brain), consisting of five very abstract and fleetingly worked over clay sculptures, painted with a silver Indian ink and placed on square pedestals of untreated wood. Each sculpture weighs around 1,350 grams, which is equivalent to the average weight of an adult human brain. They are all lined up and look like brutally broken brains, destroyed by a touch lasting all of a split second. Thus, Anxiety Objects Series (Brain) seems to be the strongest exponent of the physical influence of violence in the exhibition.
Survival and recollection
Trauma is constituted not only by the destructive force of a violent event, but by the very act of survival
A significant part of the pieces in the exhibition have been created through a performative approach, pointing back to Peter Brandt’s background in theatre and performance arts. It is very obvious in You Killed Me Slowly, a series of black and white photocopied hands, each imitating an unconscious or dead mans hands. The artist has, supposedly, imagined how the “dead” body is perceived at the moment it is found.
Performativity is also present in a more subtle form in the snapshot-series After, containing 21 shaken and unfocused colour photographs, which Brandt took of himself in his bathroom a couple of weeks after the attack. The photographs are badly lit and unfocused, but all the same, you recognize a blood red t-shirt, a black eye, and a swollen cheek. The violence is so very present and imprinted in the face and the cast down look. The almost painful poses seem to desperately seek the pure, sharp reflection of self, a documentation of the “old self”. The “previous-self.” This is a very characteristic action for the traumatised. People who have been confronted with their own mortality often try to repress this meeting, hoping to be able to return untouched to their “old self”. This makes the need to re-establish the “old self” one of the key points of a trauma-process, and it makes the work extremely representative of the process of treating trauma.
The confrontation with death; or having watched oneself die and survive is without doubt one of the central factors in the traumatic experience. The American theorist Hal Foster has written about this in his book, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (1996), wherein he talks about a return of the real and reality in contemporary art. The real, according to Foster, is the intangible and the incomprehensible, while the traumatic is a missed or avoided meeting with the real”. Because the real is missed, it cannot be represented but only repeated . This is exactly what Peter Brandt seems to be doing, seeking the real within the repetition.
All this suddenly becomes apparent in After. We have the repetitions seeking the real and finding a state of mind. The serialization and the repetitions in Brandt’s work are therefore not a conscious wish to manipulate and change a situation, but rather an unconscious wish to reawake a lost memory a memory of the real landmark state of mind. In this way, After is a work of art which in every way confirms both Foster and Caruth’s points about the effect of repetition and the importance of the artistic forms of representation. And as a further supplement Freud also thought that the photographic repetition of a traumatic event could prove a very effective strategy for integrating the trauma in the psyche. From that perspective the art work, in this particular case the photography, is simply a way to unearth recognition.
In the video Contusions loss of recollection is also at stake, but intertwined with the obstacle of how impossible representation of the traumatic experience seems to be. You see Brandt rocking gently and dreamily moving to the sound of his own narrative voice, remembering and reflecting on what happened in Rome that day. In what looks like a slow and hazy hypnotic dance, you get the impression that Brandt is trying to transcend himself back to the moment of the attack to remember details that are not clear in his immediate recollection. Here the difference between memory and recollection suddenly becomes very clear, because while the memory is spontaneous and concrete, recollection is to a much higher degree susceptible, manipulative and constructed.
The impossible representation is possible
The traumatic event is only fully evident in connection with another place and in another time
With insight into Peter Brandt’s specific traumatic sequence of events, the works of art themselves tell an explicit story and confirm for us the many characteristic processes and feelings that define the trauma and the post traumatic reaction. This is obvious in choice of material, the repetitive principle, the recollection theme, and the contemplations of the possible or impossible representations of the experience. Somewhere in the book Pain in the Eye, Peter Brandt asks “why it is so terrible for the survivor not to be heard”. He answers it himself with the following statement: “Not being heard means that the new self that the traumatised has become does not exist for others”.
This seems to be the crux. The essence of the psychic trauma is the experience of powerlessness and being cut off from others. That is why the following healing process is very much a matter of giving authority back to the traumatised and creating a connection to the surrounding world . But in most cases it is much harder to do than we may think. While the most common psychological reaction to traumatic experiences, for most people, seems to be to exclude the experience from your consciousness, because they as experiences are impossible to enunciate, Peter Brandt now opposes that reaction, and claims that it is possible to articulate the traumatic through representation. To which extent, form and level of detail this happens is entirely dependent on the condition and resources of the traumatised.
In a convincing manner I Died in Italy But No One Knows It conveys the circumstances and the consequences of an all-engrossing personal trauma. The 12 works in the exhibition each take their place in the great representative puzzle and demonstrate very precisely in a hands-on manner how contemporary art is highly usable as a constructive and cognitive tool in a necessary and pressing healing of the traumatic experience.
Furthermore, the exhibition creates a clear distinction between the collective trauma and the more explicit individual trauma, which is far more common, but which is also still isolated, supplanted and made invisible in society. Thereby, the exhibition questions how we in this day and age use and understand the term trauma, what we think brings on trauma, as well as which social set of norms defines the term within society.
Aukje Lepoutre Ravn,
M.A. art history, curator of Traneudstillingen.
Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience - Trauma Narrative and History, John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Caruth, Cathy, Trauma Explorations in Memory, John Hopkins University Press, 1995
Foster, Hal: The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, MIT Press, 1996.
Freud, Sigmund, Jenseits des Lustprinzips, 1920.
Herman, Judith Lewis, Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror, Basic Books, 1997.