Trauma Has Always Been Important in Luke Willis Thompson’s Art
Before he filmed Diamond Reynolds, the New Zealander made his name looking at how violence shaped other people’s lives, and deaths.
The nomination of Luke Willis Thompson for the Turner Prize—one of the art world’s most prestigious awards—has already come under attack.
autoportrait—the work that’s earned him the nod not only for the Turner but also just won the Deutsche Börse Prize—is a 35mm black-and-white film of Diamond Reynolds, the woman who broadcast on Facebook Live the immediate aftermath of the killing of her partner, Philando Castile, by a policeman during a routine traffic stop. It’s a work of profound, manipulative and problematic beauty. But that’s nothing new for Thompson.
Reynolds’ case became a touchstone for the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged with such incredible cultural force in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Ferguson and New York respectively. Reynolds’ Facebook broadcast promised justice; that the inbuilt racism of American law enforcement would finally be held accountable because of her extraordinary deployment of technology. And yet Castile’s killer, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted—another example of the tolerance of, and protections for, institutionalised violence within the American justice system.
In an RNZ interview with Kim Hill, Thompson explained his long negotiations with Reynolds and her lawyer to make autoportrait. His interest, he explained, wasn’t in her reliving or retelling Castile’s killing, but in recognising the “performative brilliance” of her gesture: the dignity and calm involved in understanding, as her partner sat dying beside her, that her phone could create a legal document and a real-time cry for help, and be a tool of self-defence for her and her daughter, both still in the car. Whether she knew it consciously at the time, it was also inevitable her video would become a vital reference point for future activism.
Thompson saw in all of this a quality that could be translated into another field: art. The final result is a silent film, just under nine minutes long, in which we see Reynolds from the shoulders up, sitting on a three-quarter angle. Nothing much happens: we watch her breathe, and, at one stage, sing; which of course we can’t hear.
Thompson, as his critics point out, has form in working with other people’s trauma; in some ways, its his defining characteristic. In 2012, he acquired and displayed three roller doors, which had been tagged by Manurewa teenager Pihema Cameron. The owner of the property, Bruce Emery, followed Cameron, and in a tragic, terrible turn of events, killed him.
In Thompson’s ambiguous 2014 Walters Prize-winning work inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam, gallery visitors were ushered into a taxi, not told where they were going, and driven to a house in one of Auckland’s central suburbs, where they were left to wander around without instructions.
And in 2016, he borrowed and displayed several worn gravestones from a cemetery in Fiji (where his deceased father was from): stones taken from the graves of unnamed indentured labourers from South Asia and China, who’d come to the Balawa Estate to work in its colonial sugarcane plantations.
Thompson’s detractors argue his work is exploitative; others suggest that in certain cases, like the Fijian headstones, he breaks cultural protocols around the sacredness of human remains. When I interviewed him in London last year, he addressed both points. “I think the right an audience has is to leave,” he told me. “That’s paramount. Or the right to say no, like, ‘I don’t want to get in that cab’. But I don’t think that right then extends into what they can ask the work to be.”
And of the gravestones, which he borrowed with the full involvement of Fijian authorities, he rejected the idea that “Fiji doesn’t have the right to perform its own transgression.” The same argument can be made of autoportrait: to suggest it was a purely exploitative act is to deny Reynolds her own agency in the collaboration—her own clear and present awareness of the stakes involved, and the artistic necessity of vulnerability and risk.
Recently, a friend sent me a link to a debate from 1968 between the Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan—the prophet of the electronic age—and the American novelist Norman Mailer, whose reputation was built on his preoccupation with violence: American violence specifically. Watching it straight after Thompson’s Turner nomination, it struck me how resonant autoportrait is with the two men’s ideas about the coming impact of technology, information and the electronic age on how we view each other.
“The present is only faced, in any generation, by the artist… and the artist who comes in contact with the present produces an avant-garde image that is terrifying to [their] contemporaries.”
McLuhan suggested that “the present is only faced, in any generation, by the artist… and the artist who comes in contact with the present produces an avant-garde image that is terrifying to [their] contemporaries.” Mailer, appalled by McLuhan’s electronic revolution (in an interesting anticipation of selfie culture, he described it as “auto-erotic”), saw “a totalitarian principle present in this avalanche of over-information.” And he argued that it wasn’t sufficient for artists just to map the present; one had to then decide whether that present was good or bad. The artist didn’t have to be right about this—but it was their duty, through their work, to at least intimate a moral view.
1968 was a devastating year. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the two men who held out the most hope for a new political era in African-American rights, were both assassinated. Global student protests failed to produce meaningful social change. Richard Nixon won the US presidency, and weapons manufacturers kept making their fortunes as bombs and poison rained down on innocent people in Vietnam. The war continued unnecessarily for several more years, with a disproportionate number of black men killed or injured in the conflict.
Our own era of hashtag movements is facing a similar tipping point: while we hold out hope that real change can occur through The Women’s Marches or #metoo or BLM, police killings continue, powerful men keep avoiding justice for sexual harassment and assault, Syria keeps choking and burning, and the world’s most powerful nations are run by authoritarians going out of their way to stoke fears about minority groups and crush protest.
Reynolds’ story, and Thompson’s tribute to it, weaponises the three defining American technologies of our time: the semi-automatic gun (Castile was shot at seven times in a matter of seconds); the smartphone; and social media’s viral capacity: the “electronic envelope” that McLuhan anticipated in 1968 and which we’re now all so enfolded within. Mailer was right on both counts: over-information has become totalitarian, and our times need artists who not only map the present, but make us feel. Thompson, in autoportrait—whether you agree with how he goes about it or not—does precisely that.
Follow Anthony on Twitter.