Are we Broken?
A recent study recorded that 67% of Europeans believe the world used to be a better place*; the success of Donald Trump's 'Make America Great Again' campaign in 2017 suggests a similar consensus in the US. I recently attended a conference which discussed the narratives of decay in contemporary European literature. And it feels a little as though, little by little, our sense of place, stability and agency in the world are gradually being chipped away at.
Yet, on an objective level, our lives are improving. We have lower levels of child mortality; we have less poverty; we are living longer with a better quality of life**. And so, whilst it is clear that there are a very many reasons to feel anxious about both the present and the future, to imply that the past was full, complete or unbroken would be a misnomer. And it can feel difficult to temper an internal pessimism which is built on a narrative of progressive decay against a backdrop of an impossible past.
The art of creation as an act of resistance
In my own art work, I've been grappling with the theme of decay and brokenness for many years. It stems from the mourning of possibilities of many lives which slowly, over time, collapsed into ever-narrowing possibilities. It's a perception that every gain in life comes with an associated cost; a wound. It's an acknowledgement that sometimes the scales balancing scars against growth sometimes tip in favour of the scar.
But the act of making - of creating - is in direct opposition to the narrative of decay, of brokenness. To create something from nothing offers resistance to a narrative that tells us that the best is behind us. Art can act as an antidote when the world around us feels broken.
Throughout my practice, I actively work with materials that have been stripped of their cultural or material value. I work with objects which are broken, disused or ephemeral. In my mixed-media art works, I work with clocks that no longer tick, flowers that have died, wood that has been burnt to ash. And through the creative process, I reattribute value. These components become something new, something beautiful, something to which new narratives - beyond brokenness - can be ascribed. It's never a 'fix' - rather, it's an alternative.
My 2022 project, Kairos Relics, asked members of the public to contribute their own mementoes of the past to create a new artefact to the future. Often broken, damaged or having lost their emotional relevance, the mementoes fed into the narrative of decay. They stood as reminders of lost and now unobtainable times. In recontextualising the objects within the vessels, they start a new story; one of new possibilities grown from an imperfect, more real past.
I don't know if it's right to hijack the narrative of decay or not. Perhaps it motivates change. But it's important today, when we have become hyper-aware of destructive political, environmental and cultural systems, that we remain capable of imagining alternatives. We can acknowledge the brokenness of the situation without allowing it to be the only possible outcome. If decay is the only available progression, then what now for the world?
I've always loved art's ability to construct entire worlds from the most humble of materials. Now as much as ever, we need art's narratives of creation to counterbalance the dominant narrative of decay, and to offer new routes out of broken landscapes.
* and **
For a truly fascinating read on the outlook of people across the world, have a look at this study from Our World in Data.