BERLIN, Germany — How can we define healing when facing trauma, and can anyone truly heal from a traumatic experience? In YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal at Gropius Bau, organized by Berliner Festspiele, 25 artists and art collectives engage the audience in an honest discussion on the possibility of making peace with our individual and collective pasts, and their complicated histories. The artists focus on displacement, violence, and loss of ecological habitats and homes.
The landscape of Berlin is filled with physical and psychological wounds. Healing is part of life, a process that takes place one day at a time, making this an ideal venue for an exhibition that considers trauma and its aftermath. The absence of a prescriptive structure when it comes to painful conversations turns this exhibition into a truly transformative and thoughtful experience. But an experience that also underscores the limits of healing.
The works look at pain and healing through the discourse of feminism, postcolonialism, ecological sustainability, and fair land use. Among the most intimate and disturbing sources of trauma here is rape. Artemisia Gentileschi, who was violated by her mentor and teacher, is represented alongside a depiction of abortion by Paula Rego — one of many by the artist. These works by Rego became part of a public pro-choice campaign that influenced the 2007 legalization of the procedure in Portugal, enabling women to make decisions about their own bodies. For both Gentileschi and Rego confronting the violence is a crucial part of healing. But this confrontation is less a resolution than a reckoning. In her large canvas “Susanna and the Elders” (c. 1610), Gentileschi allegorically depicts her own personal tragedy by representing a humiliating public examination by the court to restore the family reputation after being raped. Healing sought through the pursuit of public justice brought more pain.
The limits of healing are even more prominent in works by Andrea Büttner and Yhonnie Scarce. Büttner’s photographs focus on historical trauma within Germany, portraying the Dachau concentration camp as garden of healing plants that merely cover the demarcated mass grave sites. Scarce’s installation consists of three scaled-down sheds of corrugated zinc, bitumen paint, and shellac that serve as stand-ins for temporary housing built by the British army during its atomic program in the 1950s and ’60s in Australia. The program forced the Kokatha aboriginal people to leave their historic land, exacerbating the trauma of displacement with exposure to radiation and its aftermath. In relation to mass death, displacement, and the effects of radiation, the exhibition destabilizes the notion of healing with the question of futility.
These types of personal and societal traumas are counteracted, however, with various communal methods of rebounding, if not fully recovering. Dismantling the museological ethnographic gaze is one example, along with witchcraft, astrology, shamanism, body work, and performance. Yet, the main question of whether we as a society or individuals can heal remains open. What the show does offer are some pathways, as well as hope that the artistic practices at work may provide a means to navigate our personal journeys through trauma.
YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal continues at Gropius Bau (Niederkirchnerstrasse 7, Berlin, Germany) through January 15. The exhibition was curated by Brook Andrew and Kader Attia with Giscard Bouchotte, Natasha Ginwala, and Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, under the curatorial lead of Stephanie Rosenthal in collaboration with SERAFINE1369, In House: Artist in Residence 2021.