When US President Donald Trump caught the coronavirus, Zorawar Sidhu found himself refreshing his phone for updates. Eagerly awaiting the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, he was once again glued to the flashing screen.
“My appetite for news had increased,” the 36-year-old said by phone from New York. “Maybe it’s the frequency or the pace of how the news arrives or how intense each piece of information is, where the next thing is more alarming than the last. “
We are all doomscrollers now, compulsively absorbing a constant stream of negative news with unspeakable psychological and social consequences. Sidhu and fellow artist Rob Swainston, who marry historic printing processes with 21st century tools, responded with works designed to stop us and get our feet wet.
Their woodblock exhibit, Doomscrolling, interprets 18 moments between May 24, 2020 and January 6, 2021, a stretch for the history books that have seen the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests and the deadly insurgency. at the United States Capitol.
The project was born after Sidhu and Swainston found themselves bombarded with images of 2020 and after Swainston took photos of a strangely deserted Manhattan in quarantine on morning bike rides.
“It was a very strange sight and everything was empty and all you really saw was this very visible homeless population, but everyone was kind of hiding,” recalls the 51-year-old. “Then all of a sudden this plywood started going up all over lower Manhattan in response to the protests.
“I was photographing and I was like, wow, this is such an opportunity for someone who works in print media and knows the potential of woodcuts, to get that plywood somehow and to use it to tell the story of 2020 on plywood that was put in place to “protect the institutions”. It seemed so poetic. “
The artists contacted various institutions to ask if they could have the plywood when it fell and got several positive responses, especially from the art world. Eventually, they collected around 120 leaves.
This turned out to be the perfect medium, in part because the woodcuts are associated with movements for social change dating back at least 500 years, in part because the distressed and battered material could convey a story inherently. messy.
Sidhu explains, “In this case, woodblock print was the appropriate medium as these prints are made with the paper directly touching the wood, which was outside during these protests and collected graffiti and was scratched and hollowed out, drilled. and weathered. All of this is still visible when you take a close look at these footprints.
To create a montage effect, artists superimposed frame on frame, as if scrolling through a computer screen or cell phone. Sidhu and Swainston used references to art history such as a horse drawn from Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the hands of Käthe Kollwitz, and the heavy shadows of Edvard Munch.
The 18 prints each represent a specific image or event, including a May 24 New York Times cover page “US DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS” and, a day later, the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked daily protests against racial injustice in New York and other cities.
Swainston, who has a university education in art and political science, recalls: “There were images going around and around and there were images in New York City that circulated a lot among us and our friends.
“I participated in some of the protests that took place daily from Prospect Park to McCarren Park in Williamsburg. When the curfew took place, the police started to be aggressive towards anyone in the street after seven hours and numerous images were released.
He continues, “Some of those events were very clear that we wanted to do something about, like the day in Washington when the parks police gassed everyone and Trump came out and held up the Bible in front of St John’s Church.
“There are other dates that have been tougher: okay, how do we talk about Covid? Are we looking at the dates that have the largest day of death? Some of them were a little more nebulous as to the exact date, but these were feelings that were occurring over time. Social distancing, hospitalizations, commemorative images that we just wanted to put into the series to tell the whole story. “
One imprint focuses on Kyle Rittenhouse, who was 17 when, armed with an AR-type semi-automatic rifle, he shot dead two people and injured a third during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In court, Rittenhouse argued he fired in self-defense and was acquitted of all charges.
But the first track they completed was the last in chronological order: the assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington by a pro-Trump mob determined to overturn the Jan.6 election result. It looked like a natural bookend.
Sidhu explains: “There was an emergency at this point on January 6th, so we all felt it was time to do something about it. For us as artists, the first thing we could do was take those images and take them out, try to make something out of them.
Many people, including doomscrollers, have felt overwhelmed by the past two years. The artists hope to disrupt the idea of these moments as fixed and inevitable. Instead, they argue, their montages keep moments alive with unfixed meanings, a clue that dialogue and social change are always possible.
Sidhu, who was born in Ludhiana, India, says, “It encourages a re-examination of everything that has happened rather than moving forward as if these issues are resolved. We see Covid coming back with Omicron. With the opening of the show on January 6, it’s already an opportunity to reflect on this date and all that goes with it.
Swainston adds, “We hope that by releasing it, by keeping the images circulating, they will continue to have a possibility and not fix in the past and we will just get out of it.” We are still in this moment in my head and these cultural wars brewing in the United States that threaten to separate us all.
“These unresolved issues of race, gun violence, all these things that we cannot leave behind and continue to live with. We have to start responding to them, and in our society it is through images that we now process information in an increasingly meaningful way.
Trump’s departure from the White House, and his withdrawal from Twitter, seemed to invite a little less disaster in 2021, but persistent crises, notably the Omicron variant, suggest the phenomenon is not going away anytime soon. Still, Swainston is hoping the exhibit, which opens at the Petzel Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side on January 6, can help wean visitors off their fast-food diet.
“We’re talking about how media environments are now set up to reinforce what you’ve already seen, but the way it happens is that the images are thrown at you and stacked on top of each other, and the next one resonates. with the next one. We are getting very fast in our image reading; we understand immediately.
“It’s a relatively new thing. The way humans looked at images in previous environments, they were slower. We would take a lot of time with a painting or a photo or we would first see the parts and then the whole. It just has consequences for the way we look at the pictures.
He adds, “We hope this series will slow people down. This is what you see, but as you watch more and more is unfolding more and more is there, and it gives space for the viewer to keep looking and discovering and exploring. get your own idea of what that means.