At a time when the media are so preoccupied with projecting shocking imagery and violent narrative, obliging the public to consume violence as if they were completely detached and alienated from its origins, perhaps the role of contemporary art should be to produce the kind of shock waves which help people find their lost sense of self. In ‘Idée sur les Romans,’ Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade observed that Gothic literature was the inevitable result of the revolutionary shocks which were felt all over Europe. New Gothic art is necessarily the result of the many contemporary cultural earthquakes that have shaken many regions throughout the world, haunted as we are in modern life by the fear of death in its many monstrous guises: for example, the war in Iraq, serial killers, paedophiles, guns and violent culture, environmental disaster and global warming. Gothic creativity and its dark imagery have sought to create a sense of control and orientation intending to establish coordinates to guide us towards recovering a sense of identity. Through the monstrous works of well-known artists such as Cynthia Morris Sherman, Robert Gober, Louise Joséphine Bourgeois, Damien Steven Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Paul McCarthy, Keith Edmier, Douglas Gordon and many other creative geographers of our contemporary horrors, we may be able to encounter vital pieces of our fragmented and disintegrated selves.
By definition, a shock wave is a propagating disturbance. Such waves are characterised by an abrupt, almost discontinuous change in the characteristics of the medium. During a shock, there is always an extremely rapid rise in pressure, temperature and density of the flow. Such a wave travels through most media at a higher speed than an ordinary wave. Metaphorically speaking, Gothic aesthetics can be said to seek to create the same effect through its capacity to invent new techniques for instilling terror that surpass those created by a sensationalist media which is concerned to stimulate consumers’ addiction to its orgy of atrocities. However, we know that nowadays it is increasingly difficult to produce a rush of adrenalin or a quickening of heartbeat that might cause the desired sensation of “pleasurable pain,” a sublime paradox described so well by Edgar Allan Poe, which inexplicably justifies our perverse impulses for evil and our uncontrollable and irrational will to be terrified.
In ‘Limits of Horror,’ Fred Botting compares specific aesthetic Gothic shocks to the shocking effects produced by technological progress that provokes fearful responses, concluding that they are part of the system of modernity. Defining a shock as an “experience which signals an unexplainable disjunction between phenomena and modes of habituation, whether cultural or technological,” Fred Botting thinks it “marks a disruptive process of subjective and corporeal reordering,” provoking a deviation from the rules and a disruption of the uniformity and proportion that originates a “subjective manifestation of aesthetic deformity.” He thinks shock provides an index of a crisis, which like natural disasters and technological accidents produces “the reverberation of traumatic after-effects.” If shock provokes derangement caused by a powerful, violent event that disrupts the continuity of an artificial or mechanical situation, shattering tradition, the repetitive and mechanical use of shocks can exhaust consumers who become accustomed to them and are rendered incapable of stimulation or excitement. Consequently, at the same time that Fred Botting considers that Gothic shocks have many new creative potentialities for producing terrifying images that activate “an instinct of self-preservation that invigorates the mind’s imaginative powers,” as “a response to a catastrophic reordering of the rhythms and expectations of everyday life.” He notes that through repetition these shocks become too familiar and even pleasurable, stripped of effect as they are by their banality.
However, we are still fascinated by monsters and the dark side of the human imagination. We crave Gothic forms of stimulation for their immediacy and power to make our hearts race, our blood pressure rise, our breathing shallow and quick, and our stomachs heave, as Steven Bruhm confronts us with our unique attraction for horrifying images that are strangely familiar, as uncanny as they are abject, which seems to explain why we require a Gothic fix. Steven Bruhm comes to the conclusion that we need it because the twentieth-century has so forcefully taken away from us that which we once thought constituted ourselves — a coherent psyche, a social order to which we can pledge allegiance in good faith, a sense of justice in the universe — and that wrenching withdrawal, that traumatic experience, is vividly dramatized in the Gothic.
Inexplicably, we adhere to the Gothic style and the horrendous images it produces because we enjoy the feeling of trauma, the negative sentiment that reflects the turbulent times we live in, fraught with uncontrollable circumstances, in which it is impossible to survive without a strong sensation of disorientation and discomfort, which has produced a society languishing in a permanent state of cultural pessimism and spiritual crisis. Gothic has become the stage on which trauma can be reenacted through its monstrous creations in order that it may be overcome and exorcised. If we consider that contemporary geography has made much of the assertion that, as Derek Gregory puts it, “mapping is necessarily situated, embodied, partial: like all other practices of representation,” Gothic can be said to use a kind of “geographical imagination” in order to seek a symbolic space for the recreation of its principal themes of horror, madness, monstrosity, death, disease, terror, evil and deviant sexuality in order to locate the source of our most secret fears and trauma and illuminate them. This is why it can be said that certain artists like Louise Joséphine Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Kiki Smith and Rona Pondick have developed a model of art as “the re-experiencing of a trauma,” which they understand sometimes as symptomatic, acting out of a traumatic event, in which the artwork becomes a site where memory or fantasy can be attempted, as it were a symbolic working-through of such an event, in which the work becomes a place where “treatment” or “exorcism” can be attempted.
Inspired by the uncomfortable realities that surround us, some artists can only find adequate expression in a disturbing and grotesque art, using aesthetic equivalents and many metaphors for the extreme experiences that haunt us insistently. They seem to believe in the power of art to shock and disturb, whenever they recreate the avant-garde drama of provocation and refusal of cultural glorification through works that, as the antithesis of all smiling faiths, may be called monstrous, nihilistic or morbid, but they also express a nostalgic faith in creativity for questioning the stereotypes and false appearances that constantly limit and prevent an in-depth perception of ourselves. Commenting on the presence of images of excessive and gruesome violence in contemporary art, which are usually intended to achieve a disconcerting impact, Christoph Grunenberg observed that “many contemporary visual artists share a common aesthetic, a preference for crude, fragmentary, and contorted forms which are employed to produce effects of horror as well as amazement.” The dual nature of these effects shows that Gothic thrills imply a certain sublimity due to the association of the beautiful with the ghastly, which produces ambiguous emotions of attraction and repulsion.