Speaking Through the Wound: An Interview with Georgia Keeling | Hosted by Millie Norman

Feminist artist Georgia Keeling, known for thorough, raw explorations of sexuality, trauma and the body, returns with her latest project, 'AVULSION'. Comprised of essays, sculpture, photography, performance and illustrations, the work, which focuses on dental trauma, is clinical, yet visceral; detached, yet unabatingly personal. Speaking to us about her research process, the interaction between objects and agency, and her manipulation of the limitations of space and display, it is clear that Keeling's latest artistic venture into traumatic experience is, by far, her most nuanced and complex yet.

Georgia Keeling, 'AVULSION'. 2020

MN: Your project is called ‘Avulsion’—meaning ‘an injury in which a body structure is torn off by either trauma or surgery’. I found the tension in this definition really interesting—with surgery, there is this idea of intent (though this isn’t malicious in a medical context!), whereas with medically-defined physical trauma, there is a notion of it being collateral damage perhaps, or unprecedented/unpredicted. What do the nuances in the word’s definition and this concept of forcible detachment mean to you? Why have you used it as a spearhead in the conceptualising of your project?

GK: I chose to title my project ‘Avulsion’ because of the lack of control that the phenomenon represents. In a surgical sense, there is a sense of helplessness to the person it is being done to. They have no agency over the process—both in the sense that it is being done to them, but also that, in many examples. they will be sedated for it. In the same way, if it is in the sense of avulsion as a result of a physical trauma, its unprecedentedness also is demonstrative of a lack of control over the outcome of the action that caused it. I like that the word can be read in this literal sense, but also in a metaphorical sense. For example—a key symptom of PTSD is dissociation. And further, a loss of your sense of self, a loss of your self-awareness. Fundamentally, a loss of the person you were before the moment of trauma. That sense of isolation and separation that comes through both when you read the title literally and metaphorically also carries through to how trauma is treated by wider society. Mental health services in the UK are severely underfunded, and unless you are able to look at private options, there is an extreme lack of options for trauma support. The same applies to national, collective trauma. No system is equipped to deal with the PTSD of an entire nation. It leaves survivors, like an avulsed limb, or tooth, isolated.

MN: Going from there—in your research, the dentistry text you reference mentions that tooth loss following reimplantation after dental avulsion is a common occurrence. In the context of your work, this could be considered a metaphor for unresolved PTSD. What is the interaction between the literal/physical and the metaphorical/subconscious in this project’s exploration of trauma?

GK: As we discussed before, both the title and the work can be looked at in both a literal and metaphorical sense. I am fundamentally exploring dental trauma. Everyone has had some experience of bad dental treatment—whether that’s the dentist themselves, dental phobia or having had some dental surgery. If you have been through sustained traumatic experience, like long-term abuse, this becomes more complicated. Many abuse victims do not go to the dentist for years because of a core belief that they are not worth looking after. The closeness of having a dentist poking around your mouth can also be incredibly triggering. It is a context and phenomenon that is extraordinarily layered. I am trying to make art through which the viewer can bring themselves to the piece and interact with the experiences of others—even if the nature of their experiences are worlds away from their own. I am trying to give people a chance to feel less alone, which is a common symptom of PTSD.

Sculpture, 'AVULSION'. Georgia Keeling, 2020

MN: A lot of your work—namely your 2019 project ‘Anatomical Vulnerability’—focuses on feminine-specific trauma. In what way is this project a departure from these gendered explorations?

GK: Exploring the female body has always been important to my work. It has given me a voice and a way of articulating my own experiences through my art. With this project, I have been exploring trauma in a far less specific sense. I would not necessarily say that this project is a departure from my work on gender—it is a big part of who I am and how I express myself creatively. The universality of trauma that I am trying to explore through this project does not need or benefit from a gender-based framework. Naturally, I am a woman, I am my own model, these casts are casts of my teeth. There is, therefore, a feminine implication in the work. However, by isolating the teeth casts from the body, there is not an explicit assignment of gender to my sculptures. This gives the viewer the chance to be speculative, to project their own experiences onto the work. It shows the body as an abstract object, outside of societally prescriptive ideas of what a gendered body looks like. By isolating it from other features and other contexts, we can look at trauma in a very abstract sense.

MN: In the development stages of your project, you note an interest in inanimate objects, and how they might be used to represent emotion, or potential of emotion, depending on whether they are activated by a participant or performer (for example, as in Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’ or Marina Abramovic’s ‘Rhythm Zero’) or whether they remain static and passive (for example, in Sarah Lucas’s ‘Au Naturel’). To what extent does the interaction between objects and agency play a role in your exploration of trauma? Given the opportunity, how would you explore the casts you have made in a participation context, and how would this change the work?

GK: I am really interested in the agency that objects might have, and how this is transferred, created, or changed by viewer or participant. I think, to an extent, my sculptures take on a human role—they almost have personalities. They have a very active ability to disturb. They leave behind marks and dust, so they are always interacting with the space around them in a tactile way. At the same time, there is a tension there—they are cast from something that is alive, that moves, that speaks. When they are solidified in cast form, they become almost a memory of that life. It feels almost as if I am hoarding bones, like they are museum artefacts. Because of the COVID-19 lockdown, I have not been able to present the works in a gallery space, so have been presenting them through photography. In a way, this renders the words static, and draws increased distance between the object and the viewer than, perhaps, I had initially imagined. It can feel quite haunting. Though I do feel with increased physical accessibility the works’ ability to engage with people on a universal, relatable level would be made easier, I definitely think this distance allows for another representation and exploration of trauma.

I think a participation context would be really interesting for this series. One idea I had was presenting the casts on the floor, with the top casts facing down—as I did when they were in the bricks. There would be multiple casts of white plaster and grey cement. As the viewers/participants enter the exhibition space, they would have no option but to step on and, by proxy, break the casts. As more participate, the more casts and the deeper the works would be broken. This would symbolize unresolved trauma—without stepping back and attempting to resolve and process the trauma, the cycle would not be broken, and, instead, would increase its effects. It would also be indicative of collective trauma, or complex trauma. The remnants would remain in the gallery space.

It is debatable how effective this would be, though, as it would mean people would not be able to see the casts.

Performance, 'AVULSION'. Georgia Keeling, 2020

MN: By interviewing dentist Dr Kate Starling and adopting Griselda Pollock’s framework of identifying traumatic experience, your research is certainly informed by an interdisciplinary approach. In a digital world where a majority of information is accessible, and it is easier than ever before to engage directly with people outside of creative disciplines, can artists afford to only engage with artistic circles and contexts if they want to make meaningful work? How important is interdisciplinary collaboration to contemporary art?

GK: I think working with different people who can bring something to your work that you alone could not is very important. It gives your work increased meaning by opening it up to different perspectives, and allows arguments that are being had or questions that are being asked in scientific contexts, or medical contexts, to be brought into a new space. It opens up those debates to more people, which is what art is all about.

MN: In the interview, Dr Starling mentions that dental phobia can be inherited. By moving away from gendered trauma, you are exploring an incredibly nuanced look at what trauma means, what it can look like: intergenerational; collective; personal; physical; sexual; emotional; male; female; neither; both. Why did casting feel like the most appropriate conduit through which you might visually represent the interacting and complex textures of traumatic experience?

GK: I have chosen to cast with a lot of different materials. The plaster alludes to medical definitions of trauma. It is used to create casts for injuries. It also gives off this idea of the clinical, coldness and cleanliness. It also bears a resemblance to the colour of bones, but is, obviously, a false material. This is symbolic of the ‘traumatic real’—flashbacks and endless re-imaginings of the event, but never the objective truth of the event itself. The cement casts offer something different. Cement has the potential to become a stronger material with additional components. This alludes to the healing process involved with PTSD—there is the possibility of post-traumatic growth and the ability to heal with additional help. Simultaneously, the porous appearance of the cement casts is reminiscent of limestone, which becomes decayed and damaged over time by natural conditions. This could be indicative of collective trauma, and how this continues to affect a nation for many years to come. Decay is also, naturally, symptomatic of literal dental trauma.

Casting, for me, enforces ideas of the real. In this way, I am part of my art. Trauma is a part of me. Each cast, though visually similar at first glance, is different – they have different consistencies, curing times, and outcomes. No traumatic experience is the same, even if they stem from the same event. They should not, therefore, be represented in the same way.

Details from sculpture, 'AVULSION'. Georgia Keeling, 2020

MN: You mention an example when a cast you took of another model’s teeth did not come out fully formed, so you reconstructed the cast with additional plaster. To me, this process evoked an idea of the re-constructed or false narratives or memories a trauma survivor might use to cope with their experience. You also mention that you used a hammer and chisel to damage teeth casts. What does this element of agency you bring to the work, this sense of construction and intervention, do to complicate or extend your exploration of trauma?

GK: I think, in a way, these interventions highlight that the process of healing from trauma is extraordinarily complex. It also highlights a sense of responsibility or implication we might have in the trauma or experiences of others. They might indicate that other people or situations we encounter post-trauma might be triggering, and disrupt our post-traumatic journey. It is not a linear process, but it does not mean we are going backwards.

MN: You assemble, take apart, re-use and rearrange your casts in different spaces and contexts—for example, in a glass jar, in a loose stack, full-sets arranged in a column, scattered around your mouth cast. There is, therefore, a tactility, a sense of impermanence and activity to your sculptures. They are immortalised by the photographs, but if the works were in a tangible space, it could arguably be represented as the same work—re-framed and re-contextualised to offer a multiplicity of ways in which the work might be understood. How has the rhetoric, limitations and possibilities of space and display informed your work on trauma?

GK: If my sculptures were fixed, that could also be interesting. It would perhaps suggest an immoveable state of mind—the freezing of a brain stuck in the moment of trauma. Without breaking this state, you cannot heal. It would also be a greater asset in the art market, haha.

If I had the opportunity to show the works in a non-white cube environment, I would like to maintain this instability. There would be a reliance on balancing and working with gravity to ensure the work doesn’t fall. I like this concept – it would show that natural state of tension when living with PTSD. It would also mean that the sculpture would never be the same – it would always be slightly different depending on how I placed or arranged it. This gives it multiple lives, meanings, interpretations – suggesting the complexity of trauma. My autonomy over the casts in how I position them also inserts me back into the work.

Their instability shows mess – something that cannot be untangled with ease. Pulling one cast away would cause it all to fall, and yet it fits, makes sense, in its odd composition. Trauma remains a whole, complex story that is inaccessible, almost impossible to decipher.