When then US president Donald Trump caught the coronavirus, Zorawar Sidhu found himself refreshing his phone for updates. Waiting anxiously for the 2020 presidential election result, he was glued to flashing screen again.
“My appetite for news had been increased,” the 36-year-old says by phone from New York. “Maybe it’s the frequency of it or the pace of how the information comes in or just how intense every morsel of information is, where the next thing is more alarming than the previous.”
We are all doomscrollers now, compulsively absorbing a constant flow of negative news with untold psychological and social consequences. Sidhu and fellow artist Rob Swainston, who marry historic printing processes with 21st century tools, have responded with works designed to make us stop and regain our footing.
Their exhibition of woodblock prints, Doomscrolling, interprets 18 moments between 24 May 2020 and 6 January 2021, a stretch for the history books that saw the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and deadly insurrection at the US Capitol.
The project was born after Sidhu and Swainston found themselves bombarded by images from 2020 and after Swainston took photos of an eerily deserted Manhattan under quarantine during morning bike rides.
“It was a very strange sight and everything was empty and all you really saw was this very visible homeless population but everyone else was sort of hiding,” the 51-year-old recalls. “Then, all of a sudden, this plywood started to go up all over lower Manhattan in response to the protests.
“I was photographing and I was like, wow, this is such an opportunity for someone who works in print media, and knows the potential of woodblock prints, to get this plywood somehow and use it to tell the story of 2020 on plywood that was put up to ‘protect institutions’. It just seemed so poetic.”
The artists contacted various institutions asking if they could have the plywood when it came down and got several positive responses, particularly from the art world. Eventually they collected around 120 sheets.
It proved the perfect means of expression, in part because woodblock prints have an association with social change movements going back at least 500 years, in part because the distressed, beaten up material could convey an inherently messy story.
Sidhu explains: “In this case, woodcut was the appropriate medium because these prints are made with the paper directly touching the wood, which was outside during these protests and collecting graffiti and was scratched and gouged and drilled into and weathered. All this is still visible when you look up close at those prints.”
To create a montage effect, the artists overlaid image upon image, as if scrolling through a computer screen or mobile phone. Sidhu and Swainston used art historical references such as a horse taken from Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, hands from Käthe Kollwitz and heavy shadows from Edvard Munch.
The 18 prints each represent a specific image or event, including a 24 May New York Times front page “US DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS” and, a day later, the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked daily demonstrations against racial injustice in New York and other cities.
Swainston, who has an academic background in both art and political science, recalls: “There were images that just circulated and circulated and there were some that in New York City circulated a lot among us and our friends.
“I participated in some of the protests that went daily from Prospect Park to McCarren Park in Williamsburg. When the curfew happened, the police started to be aggressive to anyone who was out on the street after seven o’clock and lots of images were passed around.
He continues: “Some of these events were very clear that we wanted to do something with, like the day in DC that the parks police gassed everybody and Trump went out and held up the Bible in front of St John’s Church.
“There are some other dates that were harder: OK, how do we talk about Covid? Do we look at the dates that have the largest death day? Some of them were a little more nebulous as to what the exact date was but they were feelings that were happening in the time. Social distancing, hospitalisations, memorial images that we just wanted to bring into the series to tell the whole story.”
One print focuses on Kyle Rittenhouse, who was 17 when, armed with an AR-style semiautomatic rifle, he shot and killed two people and wounded a third at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In court, Rittenhouse argued that he fired in self-defence and was acquitted on all charges.
But the first piece they finished was the last in chronological order: the storming of the US Capitol in Washington by a pro-Trump mob intent on overturning the election result on 6 January. It felt like a natural bookend.
Sidhu explains: “There was an urgency in that moment of January 6 so we all felt that it was time to actually do something about it. For us, as artists, that first thing that we could do was to take that imagery and just get it out, try to do something with it.”
Many people, including doomscrolllers, have felt overwhelmed by the past two years. The artists hope to disrupt the idea of these moments as fixed and inevitable. Instead, they argue, their montages keep the moments alive with unfixed meanings, a clue that dialogue and social change are still possible.
Sidhu, who was born in Ludhiana, India, says: “It encourages a re-examination of everything that’s happened rather than moving on as if these issues are resolved. We see Covid coming back with Omicron. With the show opening on January 6, it’s already an opportunity to reflect on that date and everything that comes with it.”
Swainston adds: “We hope that, by putting it out there, by keeping the images in circulation, they continue to have possibility and don’t just become fixed in the past and we just move on from it. We are still in this moment in my mind and these culture wars that are brewing in the United States that threaten to pull us all apart.
“These unresolved issues of race, of gun violence, all of these things we can’t put them behind us and just keep living in them. We need to start to address them and, in our society, it is through images that we are processing information now in a more and more significant way.”
The departure of Trump from the White House, and his removal from Twitter, seemed to invite a little less doomscrolling in 2021, but persistent crises including the Omicron variant suggest the phenomenon will not be going away soon. Still, Swainston hopes the exhibition, which opens at the Petzel Gallery on New York’s upper east side on 6 January, can help to wean visitors off their fast food media diet.
“We talk about the way that the media environments now are set up to reinforce what you’ve already seen but the way it’s happening is that images get thrown at you and they stack on top of each other, and the next one resonates with the next one. We become very fast in our reading of image; we understand right away.
“This is a relatively new thing. The way that humans looked at images in previous environments, they were slower. We would take a long time with a painting or a photo or we would see the pieces first and then the whole. It just has consequences in the way that we look at images.”
He adds: “We hope that this series slows people down. This is what you see, but as you’re looking, more and more unfolds, more and more is there, and it gives space for the viewer to continue to look and discover and make up their own mind about what these mean.”