Zorawar Sidhu found himself scanning his phone for updates after then-US President Donald Trump acquired the coronavirus. He was hooked to the flashing screen once again, waiting for the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“It had increased my appetite for news,” the 36-year-old says over the phone from New York. “Perhaps it’s the frequency, or the speed with which the information is received, or the intensity with which each morsel of information is received, where the next thing is more alarming than the previous.”
We’ve all become doomscrollers, consuming an endless stream of bad news with unfathomable psychological and societal implications. Sidhu and his collaborator Rob Swainston, who combines old printing techniques with 21st-century equipment, have reacted with works that force us to pause and find our balance.
Doomscrolling, an exhibition of woodblock prints, depicts 18 events that occurred between May 24, 2020, and January 6, 2021, a period marked by the coronavirus epidemic, Black Lives Matter rallies, and a violent insurgency at the US Capitol.
After Sidhu and Swainston were inundated with pictures from 2020 and Swainston captured photographs of a hauntingly empty Manhattan under quarantine during early bike rides, the idea was formed.
“It was a strange sight,” the 51-year-old says, “because everything was empty and all you really saw was this very visible homeless population but everyone else was sort of hiding.” “Then, in response to the protests, this plywood began to pop up all over lower Manhattan.”
“I was photographing and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is such a great opportunity for someone who works in print media and understands the power of woodblock prints to get this plywood and use it to tell the story of 2020 on plywood that was put up to ‘protect institutions.'” It was simply so poetic.”
The artists asked several institutions whether they might keep the plywood when it was taken down and received a number of enthusiastic answers, especially from the art community. They eventually gathered roughly 120 papers.
It was the ideal medium, in part because woodblock prints have a long history of being associated with social change movements, and in part because the distressed, beaten-up material could portray an inherently untidy tale.
“Woodcut was the appropriate medium in this case because these prints are made with the paper directly touching the wood, which was outside during these protests and collecting graffiti and was scratched, gouged, drilled into, and weathered,” Sidhu adds. When you look up close at those prints, you can still see all of this.”
The designers created a montage effect by layering images on top of one other, as though browsing via a computer screen or mobile phone. Sidhu and Swainston drew inspiration from art history, including a horse from Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, hands from Käthe Kollwitz, and Edvard Munch’s deep shadows.
The 18 prints each depict a different image or event, such as the front page of the New York Times on May 24 with the headline “US DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS” and the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis a day later, which sparked daily protests against racial injustice in New York and other cities.
“There were images that just circulated and circulated,” Swainston, who has degrees in both art and political science, says. “There were some that in New York City circulated a lot among us and our friends.”
“I took part in some of the everyday demonstrations that took place between Prospect Park and McCarren Park in Williamsburg. When the curfew was imposed, the police were violent with anybody who was out on the street after 7:00 p.m., and several photographs were circulated.
“Some of these events were very clear that we wanted to do something with,” he explains. “For example, the day in DC when the parks police gassed everyone and Trump went out and held up the Bible in front of St John’s Church.”
“There were a few more dates that were more difficult: So, how do we discuss Covid? Do we look at the dates with the highest number of deaths?
Some of them were a bit more hazy in terms of the actual date, but they were sensations that occurred at the time. We intended to include social alienation, hospitalizations, and memorial photos in the series to illustrate the complete experience.”
Kyle Rittenhouse was 17 when he shot and killed two people and injured a third during a rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, while equipped with an AR-style semiautomatic rifle. Rittenhouse contended in court that he shot in self-defense, and he was found not guilty of all counts.
The assault of the US Capitol in Washington by a pro-Trump crowd bent on reversing the election outcome on January 6 was the first piece they completed in chronological sequence. It seemed like a logical conclusion to the story.
“There was an urgency in that moment of January 6,” Sidhu recalls, “so we all felt it was time to actually do something about it.” As artists, the first thing we could do was take that visual and simply get it out there and see what we could do with it.”
The previous two years have left many individuals, particularly doomscrolllers, feeling overwhelmed. The artists want to challenge the notion that certain moments are set and unavoidable.
Instead, they claim, their montages maintain the memories alive with ambiguous meanings, a sign that social reform and discourse are still possible.
“It encourages a re-examination of everything that’s happened rather than moving on as if these issues are resolved,” Sidhu, who was born in Ludhiana, India, adds.
Covid reappears, carrying Omicron. With the program debuting on January 6, it’s already a chance to dwell on that day and everything that it entails.”
“We hope that by putting it out there, by keeping the images in circulation, they continue to have possibility and don’t become fixed in the past, and we just move on from it,” Swainston says.
At my perspective, we’re still in this period, with the building cultural conflicts in the United States that threaten to tear us apart.
“We can’t put these unresolved issues of race, gun violence, and all of these things behind us and just keep living in them.” We need to start addressing them, because in our culture, we are processing information in a larger and more meaningful manner via visuals.”
The departure of Trump from the White House, as well as his disappearance from Twitter, appeared to signal a reduction in doomscrolling in 2021, but recurrent crises, such as the Omicron variation, indicate that the phenomena is not going away anytime soon. Swainston thinks that the show, which debuts on January 6 at the Petzel Gallery on New York’s upper east side, would help people wean themselves off their fast food media diet.
“We talk about how media environments are now set up to reinforce what you’ve already seen, but what’s actually happening is that images are thrown at you and they stack on top of each other, and the next one resonates with the previous one.” We become incredibly quick at interpreting images and comprehend them straight away.
“This is a brand-new concept.” Humans used to be slower while looking at visuals in prior settings. We’d spend a long time looking at a picture or photograph, or we’d look at the components first, then the whole.
It simply has ramifications for how we see pictures.”
“We hope that this series slows people down,” he says. This is what you see, but as you look, more and more emerges, more and more is there, and it leaves room for the spectator to keep exploring, discovering, and deciding for themselves what they signify.”
Thanks to David Smith at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.