Alexis Rausch continues raising questions about mass responses to traumatic events and how her identity comes into play through the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Nobody likes it here.
SALT LAKE CITY—Violence and violent media are so common that desensitization to violence is just as normal. Some people are figuring out how to cope with this status quo—but when confronting stories of real-life violence such as police brutality, domestic violence, and terrorism, we often become stuck along the spectrum of fear, criticism, or even apathy.
As a survivor of domestic violence, multidisciplinary artist Alexis Rausch explores the complexities of healing from her own violent experiences while also acknowledging what it means to speak from the intersection of white privilege and victimhood as a survivor.
“A lot of the things that I do [are] intended to critique how white people interpret highly publicized events of violence and political events,” Rausch says. “The cultural desensitization of violence, specifically for white people, is not talked about enough. It is fascinating to me and terrifying at the same time.”
Through her art, Rausch continues the taxing work of untangling her identity from her trauma. Within our collective willingness to recognize many of the events we once understood as commonplace as actually traumatic, many of us are now able to sort through our traumas. But it can also lead to instrumentalizing the concept of trauma as a way to cope with anything unpleasant.
Rausch’s work poses questions to understand this human desperation to cope, asking whether our relationship to trauma is harmful or not. In her newest exhibition, Nobody likes it here, on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art through August 5, 2023, Rausch deconstructs the relationship between American mass-trauma events and subsequent travel booms through a focus on the most recent COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2018, the Utah-based Rausch opened a conversation on our society’s contemporary fascination with violence through her exhibition The Sinners We Are at the Bountiful Davis Art Center, located just north of Salt Lake City. Rausch took images from police body cams and dashcams and interpreted them through objects that typically elicit comfort.
Comfort Object lll: Dernière prière des martyrs is a cotton woven tapestry that hangs from a curtain rod, posed like a family blanket, depicting a vague scene between perpetrator and victim. The victims are colored in Baker-Miller pink, a color reserved for violent inmates. This piece and the larger collection are intended to hold a mirror to people who inadvertently or intentionally observe violent acts through news or crime fiction as a means of entertainment.
Rausch’s artworks often ask observers where their moral responsibility lies. “That body of work made a lot of people hate me,” Rausch says. “I got death and rape threats five years after I showed these pieces at the gallery.”
This public reaction, Rausch says, was rooted in the claim that she exploits images of suffering people for her gain. On the flip side, one can argue that Rausch simply points out how numb some folks can be towards violence and how comfortable they are instrumentalizing it—for example, sending death and rape threats in response to an art exhibition.
As a child, Rausch understood the domestic violence and shootings she survived as wrong, but she noticed that society’s response to violence took different forms depending on who you were and what you looked like. Rausch noticed white members of her community getting away with actions for which marginalized people would instead be arrested. “I realized a lot of that evidence of white privilege even as a child,” she says.
Rausch became interested in identifying her desensitization to her lived experiences with violence, and also to violent acts with which she had no experience, an interest that has manifested into her artwork.
The artist raises questions about trauma and desensitization through the UMOCA exhibition Nobody likes it here. As an immunocompromised individual, Rausch felt particularly detached from participating in the “post-COVID” travel boom and instead created a silicone mask of her face, which she then sent to twelve artists to wear and take self-portraits. The artists posed as tourists in their locales including Hollywood, New York, Canada, and France.
“I invited around twenty artists I knew and twelve were able to participate,” Rausch says. “None are based in Utah, and they are all friends I made through the internet, residencies, and other art shows I’ve done.” The exercise yielded “uncanny valley” images that look like postcards from a cannibalistic serial killer on vacation, each one only sort of looking like Rausch.
The exhibition presents the photography collaboration via a slideshow-style travel album as well as through View-Masters Rausch created herself.
“I have a fascination with using things that are meant to be souvenirs but give it a darker edge,” she says. At UMOCA, a reclining chair with a TV dinner featuring Rausch’s silicone mask as the meal sits in the middle of the room, positioned in front of the slideshow. A familiar sense of loneliness, fear, and isolation underscores the arranged items in the room. The plastic coverings draped around the furniture remind us of a time not too long ago when our realities were sterilized.
Much more playful than her previous work, Nobody likes it here holds space for different ways to perceive and discuss a particular American experience of escaping traumatic experiences through comfort, by pretending nothing is wrong if you aren’t actively experiencing the problem—an ongoing pandemic, for instance.
It might feel destabilizing to engage in Rausch’s work, which often points out societal flaws such as normalizing the glamorization of trauma or the fascination with observing violent acts. However, it is fair to question whether or not these behaviors act as a coping mechanism or signal a lack of moral responsibility. As our answers swing between circumstance and identity, Rausch will continue using art to articulate where her pendulum sits in moments of reflection.