invisible tragedy

The events of 2016 incited a great exodus, an exodus which has continued to expand, strengthen and perpetuate the following year with little to no sign of stopping. What erupted from the shattered remains of the twenty-first century’s passions, hopes and progression was a spiralling pandemic which has shaken the world economically, socially and politically. Scientifically speaking  this epidemic is documented as a ‘social de-evolution’, but by everyone else it is merely referred to as digital apathy. Over the past year social media usage has been in rapid decline. Millions of people across the world began to leave their beloved social media sites: Twitter usage fell by 23.4%, Facebook by 8% (this percentage alone, seemingly small, equates to 132 million people). Instagram also took a 23.7% plummet, and Snapchat 15.7%.

Why? Many theories have been forwarded including boredom, ageing and frustration, but none of these take into account the overwhelming exhaustion users have undergone the past twelve months. Social media for many became a bombardment of tragedy upon tragedy, from gun crimes to terrorist attacks, hate speech, racism, homophobia, snap general elections, US Presidency campaign, and Brexit. People have been leaving social media to escape the tragedy of it all, or rather, what we as society have construed to signify the tragic. Tragedy, you see, shouldn’t belong in the realm of reality, and yet it does. For you see as Oscar Wilde argued: Life imitates art, a hypothesis which has never been demonstrated more poignantly than in the concept of “tragedy”.

Etymologically speaking, the term tragedy is inherently artistic. The word evolved from the Greek word tragōidia which literally translates to ‘goat song’. Anti-climatic, I know. Academics claim the word derives from the goat skin costumes worn by the performing singers in ancient tragedies. The relationship between tragedy and other non-performance art forms is unclear to many, and understandably so. The common conception of the term “tragedy” is that it is descriptive (i.e a word relating to the nature of the object) rather than evaluative (i.e a word which informs of the relationship between the object and the observer). In a world full of tangible, observable tragedy, communicating with the original, artistic evaluative experience of the genre is difficult. We as an audience are blinded by natures, and to protect ourselves we disengage from building relationships with the experience; but our relationships with the tragic are essential. It is only by empathetic relativity to the visual tragic that we as individuals and a society evolve, engage and take action; and artists like Ken Currie understand this.

Ken Currie’s artwork evokes the core traditional elements of ancient tragedy; he takes the universal experiences of human suffering (the physical, societal and political) and draws them into the microcosm of Scottish lives and history, consequently amplifying them. Renowned as one of the “New Glasgow Boys” alongside Peter Howson, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell, Currie graduated from the Glasgow School of Art 1983, quickly becoming one of the reasons the school rose to fame with his unsettling and hauntingly close portrayals of the body, usually inflicted with disease, blood and decay.

Currie has always projected viscerally, gruesome images as a response to what he felt was the sickness of contemporary society. In precisely the same manner as traditional tragedy, Currie masterfully crafts art which acknowledges the realities of violence and vulnerability from an engaging, imaginative distance. Heavily influenced by Francis Bacon and philosophy, Currie’s works, such as those in his current exhibition Tragic Forms, focus on the transformations of the human body, physically and existentially. The fleshy, hybridised forms which fill his artwork are either ambiguous morphosis of humans or evolving slabs of meat, clutching tentatively to the realm of familiarity by their titles such as Marsyas and Acteon. Like the greatest of tragedians, Currie turns our stomachs with nauseating evocations of the familiar. He forces us to face colossal canvases of workers flensing the bloodied intestinal blubber of a whale, draped in towers of his skin and  curtains of marbled red and white guts.

Unlike most of contemporary horror, Currie’s works aren’t merely grisly, aesthetic games. As demonstrated by his work Krankenhaus, a nightmarish vision of a first World War Hospital  featuring slings of naked, failing and dead bodies, unhygienic implements and cleaving knives, and the titanic painting of a tragically deformed and damaged face of a victim of the Hiroshima bomb, Currie’s works are furious, vomiting screams at society. The sensationalism is engaged for entirely moral and political reasons.

It seems counterintuitive to write an essay on art without visuals. I am more than capable of making multi-media editing, I could have inserted the images I used as reference material for my talk, but I chose not to. I chose, instead, to deliver my essay antithetically to demonstrate the malleability of artistic storytelling. Contemporary art is, at its root core, storytelling: and Scotland has been leading the world in storytelling for centuries.

Contrary to Plato’s theory that art is twice removed from reality, I argue contemporary art is intrinsically interconnected with reality. My research into Ken Currie’s artwork took me down rabbit holes of social media statistics, ancient greek theatrical theory, the NHS, the history of the Calton weavers massacre and the Higgs Boson particle physics theorem. I challenge those who have the audacity to claim “art isn’t important” to contend that their reality television shows, in which they invest so much of their lifetime, gives them such a spectrum of insight and information.

Whilst Currie himself is openly cynical of conceptual art, or more specifically the encouragement of it by art schools to the detrimental oversight of traditional medium users, what conceptual art has proven is the malleability of art’s communication. Currie’s work, though not present, can be seen. The horror and tragedy can be felt aesthetically, emotionally, contextually and historically. There is no limit to how art can be delivered. The vision of the artist can reach everyone and anyone in a multitude of ways; all the while maintaining its status as art.

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