The pros and cons of trauma-based art

Trauma victims are often encouraged to find their voice. In Field Hospital, this is taken to the next logical step with the performance of sound-artist Victoria Hanna as nurse.

Visitors watching video-art films shown at 'Field Hospital' representing Israel in the Venice Bienalle  (photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
Visitors watching video-art films shown at 'Field Hospital' representing Israel in the Venice Bienalle
(photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
The ambitious goal of Prof. Aya Ben-Ron – who created the Israeli pavilion for the 58th Venice Art Biennale, open until November – is to create “a real hospital, that deals with social injustices and uses truth-telling done by others as part of the process of healing,” she said during an April 16 press conference that took place ahead of the installation being set in Venice. 
In a phone conversation with the Jerusalem Post, art curator Avi Lubin stressed that the main focus of Field Hospital X are repressed voices, that are allowed to emerge as a result of the project without judgment. The eventual goal, Lubin said, is to address social ills.  
The deep, and perhaps fine, irony in this sincere ambition is that art and artists have a long history of skillfully presenting themselves as one thing, while being another. German artist Joseph Beuys took on the powerful symbolic role of a shaman for Western Society, and in 1965, he presented a performance piece titled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. American artist Jeff Koons created the 1989 series Made in Heaven and presented it in the 1990 Venice Biennale. The series showed him and his then-wife Ilona Staller (adult performer Cicciolina) in explicit positions that corresponded to art history.
Yet, Beuys was not a shaman and Koons was not a porn actor. People rarely attend international art events to have shamanic journeys between heaven and hell or to enjoy erotic thrills. Viewed in this way, the work Field Hospital X that Ben-Ron created acquires more and more complexities. If it’s a “real” hospital, can Israel launch it to troubled spots around the world and provide people with emergency care? If the answer is no, because people who suffer from broken arms, concussions or witnessed their loved ones die in a mud slide don’t really need to watch video art, in what sense is it “real?”
Avital Geva solved this question by choosing to build a greenhouse when he created the 1993 Israeli pavilion in the Venice Biennale. It was a real greenhouse with real drips and real fish and grew real plants. It was not a Trompe-l’oeil, you can visit it in kibbutz Ein Shemer today if you want to.
But caring about art means taking it seriously, that we start off believing that the Director of Museums and Visual Art Department in the Ministry of Culture Shirit Keesen – who worked alongside Ben-Ron to make this pavilion a reality – knows and deeply cares about art, and what Israeli art does when it enters the world and presents itself. That George Zituna – the professional who creates chairs for medical clinics and also created the chairs used for the Field Hospital X project – knows and cares about what he is involved with. This faith compels us to take a deeper look into the project and its multi-layered meanings.
Trauma victims are often encouraged to find their voice. In Field Hospital X, this is taken to the next logical step with the performance of sound-artist Victoria Hanna, who assumes the role of the guiding nurse. In a series of pre-recorded videos, she instructs the audience on how to enter to, and behave in, a hospital. She isn't the only nurse-like character operating in the project, real women in nurse uniform occupancy visitors who enter Field Hospital X and can answer their questions.  
The process involves selecting a wristband based on your answer, waiting and being taken to a sound-proof room where you are invited – or is it ordered? Or told? – to shout “a self-contained shout.”
Hanna walks a thin line between being informative and being ironical. “Nobody will hear you,” she assures the viewer; the message is repeated in slightly different ways, making one think about the painful subtext folded in it. Because it’s safe to scream in a padded room, nobody will hear you or come to your aid. Yet in our much regulated society, where shouting or crying or madly laughing are punished, one of the early stages in therapy is to assure the person that the space in which the process takes place in is a safe one. They can cry or shout or be nasty when they talk to the psychologist, and that’s okay, because there’s a human being there, unlike in Field Hospital X – and this is perhaps one of the troubling parts of the project – where there is no one, not to mention a therapist, to engage with other than the nurses. 
When Hanna is saying “be calm, be patient, be a patient, somebody is waiting for you, somebody is waiting for YOU,” she is fibbing. At the end of the hospital you are presented with the option of watching an art video, not to engage with a health care professional about your personal difficulties. There is no “one” who is waiting for you. There is a machine, which presents a video. In that way, the project, with its intense control and carefully crafted nurse uniforms and hospital sets, reminded this reporter of the 1983 film Videodrome, in which one of the main characters is only seen on the television screen, and the power dynamic between seeing, being taped, and performing is brilliantly explored.
Speaking with the Post, Lubin pointed out that viewers are able to select a second opinion after they watch the video. In these segments, experts provide an in-depth perspective of the video-art they had just seen.        
The irony – or the subtle vibe – of control and suffering, is palatable and is perhaps an intended part of the project. The English words patient and patience are derived from the Latin word for suffering patientia, and Field Hospital X not only deals with suffering and trauma, it also allows one to suffer on his or her own.
Nurses welcoming visitors and train them how to experience 'Field Hospital.'/ Elad Sarig
Nurses welcoming visitors and train them how to experience 'Field Hospital.'/ Elad Sarig
BEN-RON is adamant that the modern art lover invests little time in viewing the art works he came to see. In the case of the art at the Biennale in Venice, that can be understood as people invest their time and money in buying air tickets and hotel rooms and want to get as much as they can from the show before exploring other parts of the famous city. To counteract against that, she crafted a hospital bureaucracy that forces the audience to wait.
The person who wants to see the work accepts a wristband, waits, watches an instruction video, enters a sound-proof chamber, screams (or fails to), comes out, is taken to the final floor and there he or she can see one of the four videos presented. Only one, mind you – if a person would like to see all four films, he or she would have to go to Field Hospital X again and go through the whole process a second, third and fourth time. 
It must be noted that none of the reporters present at the April 16 press conference were able to see the whole films, as part of the concept of Field Hospital X is that you must put in the work to be a patient. Only those who visit Venice can see them. It is very possible that these movies, when seen to the very end, create such a massive change of heart that the points this reporter made might seem irrelevant.
The videos one can watch are determined by the question selected in the beginning from the four possible options.
The videos include 2017’s No Body, by Ben-Ron, in which she deals with family abuse; 2019’s Block of Clay, by Roey Victoria Heifetz and Zohar Melinek Ezra, which deals with alienation from one’s own body; and 2019’s Institutional Abduction, by Idit Avrahami, which speaks of the kidnapping of Jewish babies born to Mizrahi families in the early years of the state [an issue that is hotly debated by historians – some Mizrahi Jews strongly believe that a plot existed by the state to take their children and hand them over to be raised by European-Jewish families]. One other video one can view is 2019’s Anonymous Palestinian, in which a man whom we are told is Palestinian and wears a mask says: “The world pretends to be stupid; I will feed you with a spoon, open your mouth.”
The identity of the Palestinian man is kept secret – once again, the viewer is forced to question, as perhaps he should in medical hospitals as well, how much faith he has in the institution he is in. The person speaking might be a Palestinian, or an Israeli-Arab or a Jewish artist pulling a joke. Does it matter? Does it matter if the kidnapping of children from Jewish families who came to Israel hoping to find a safe haven and a better life really happened, or is it enough that it’s a powerful underground belief among some?
IT IS EASY to belittle the efforts of Field Hospital X by making the observation that the State of Israel sent artists to Venice and what they show is a film about Palestinians, and not, say, a film about a young Jewish woman who is sexually abused and murdered by a Palestinian who claims he was motivated by “the national struggle.” Yet that would be unkind, the Arab-Israeli conflict shapes so many things in Israeli reality and touches so many lives – and indeed, causes pain to so many people in both the Arab and Jewish communities – that to not include a nod to it would be equally lacking.
Yet, the riddle of Field Hospital X remains. People know that building hospitals won’t cure illness or rid us of death, yet we keep investing in new technology and new wings. Those who spend the time, scream in the booth, sit on the chair and see the movie might emerge from the experience a different person – or they may not.
The trouble with trauma-based art is that it pulls the rug under the conversation one would like to have about culture. Is it possible to experience trauma-based art as aesthetics? Can you say that this Holocaust film is terrible, or this play about child abuse is dumb, without sounding like a terrible person?
Yet if you can’t say that – if you are forced to nod and say “good job, very moving” to anything made as long as it’s made by a victim or presents a victim – what would be the point of caring about art?
This is a very troubling aspect about Field Hospital X from this reporter’s point of view. Therapeutic art doesn’t hide what it is – it’s using art for therapy with a real human being who is qualified to help those in pain. The power of books and movies about collective traumas like the Holocaust is in their accuracy, that it really happened and we can discuss if this or that artistic depiction is ethical or loyal to that greater reality. Art that says “my power comes from the fact I was wronged and this is my story,” yet doesn’t invite you to pause and learn more [why would the Jewish state abduct babies?], is a form of aggression.
THE 2019 BIENNALE Golden Lion award was given to the Lithuanian pavilion for Sun and Sea: Marina by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė. In that site, The New York Times reported, an artificial beach was built in which people sun-bath and play in the sand as on a normal beach. Visitors can view them from special bridges above the scene and listen to an English language opera, in which the personal story of each person on the beach is told. Slowly, it is revealed that the impending environmental calamity predicted by almost all scientists today is the deep fear which lurks under each person’s mind. That work – which is easy to access and understand, not to mention enjoyed with others, unlike the Field Hospital X movies that are seen by one person at the time – does share with the Israeli work the preoccupation with a large-scale trauma. In this case, the victim is the entire Earth, our world is likely suffering due to human activities. Try as we might to flee from that pain, it seems as if humans will have to confront it soon.
Humans have been making art for a very long time, some might even argue that it preceded language itself. We like to think we know why early humans drew on cave walls or carried small human figures made from bone or stone – “magic,” we say. “Drawing buffalo for good hunting and rubbing a figure of a woman for fertility.” Yet, we might be mistaken – what is the purpose of creating art in a site that is hard to reach and can only be seen with torches in a tiny space? Why present a performance lamenting the fate of the planet by showing people on vacation to people who took a vacation and burned jet fuel to get to the performance?
The usage of trauma-based art as the site representing Israel on the international art scene includes a deep Zionist value. The desire that “here, anyone can live free” will become a reality.
The project is expected to grow, meant to function as part of a research center which will be hosted at the University of Haifa, where Ben-Ron teaches. The Field Hospital X is to serve as one more way in which artists and scholars can join forces to explore, and perhaps heal, personal and collective traumas.