fear of the well-known

Clowns, upside-down roller coasters, public speaking, small spaces, calculus, being the last chosen for dodge ball, eating orange squash and that boogeyman guy I was convinced was in my closet as a kid — at some point in my life I’ve been scared by each of these horrifying things. Some of them I’ve gotten over. Some I’ve learned to cope with. One or two still bother me.

I was scared when my friend called me in a panic the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and frantically told me to turn on my radio just in time to hear reports that alleged terrorists had flown an airplane into the World Trade Center. I was nearly 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, and it was still scary as shit.

Five years later, and we’re ass deep in the War on Terror. Movies have been released depicting fictionalized versions of what happened at the Twin Towers and on the hijacked flight headed for the Pentagon on 9/11. Comedians have found ways to make terror funny, occasionally. Saddam Hussein got a death sentence. Osama Bin Laden is still in hiding. North Korea has detonated atomic bombs. Venezuela’s president thinks the leader of the free world is the devil and smells like sulfur. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won’t even meet with Bush.

As if real fear and terror weren’t enough, we’ve got a new horror movie in theaters every month to keep us on the edge of our seats for fear of being sawed in half or witnessing the return of Leatherface. And, there’s television shows like “24” here to convince us that fear is cool and sexy.

Thankfully, San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts put a new twist on terror by stepping away from it for a minute, taking a deep breath and exhaling life into fear. Its international “Terror?” exhibit featured artwork from more than 200 artists from 20 countries and 15 states. Paintings, graphic designs, illustrations, photos, collages, textiles and relief sculptures were submitted for the project, and many of the pieces were e-mailed as two-dimensional, 8.5 by 11 documents.

“As artists, we have an outlet, even through this little space here,” Program Director Kevin Chen says. “But most people don’t have that outlet. People are still trying to work through issues of fear and terror. This can be cathartic.”

Chen might not be too far off. It’s strange that an artists’ sketch of Scarecrow, Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and Tin Man burning in hellfire can function as catharsis; even humor. But somehow, in this exhibit, it does work.

Januri, an artist based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, sketched a figure of a man growing out of grass, surrounded by leaves and vines, with his body sliced at the waist, a bloody-tipped dagger through his head and his heart in his hand. Tokyo’s Eriko Mikami made meticulous origami figures out of collaged meat advertisements.

The folks at Intersection let the individual artist interpret the word “terror’ however they chose. And the results are so personal that some pieces flutter closely between art and therapy.

Timothy Byars’ black and white photo depicts an ominous father figure in a wife beater holding a beer in one hand and a belt in the other, standing outside an upstairs bedroom preparing to enter. San Francisco’s Aurora Meneghello, to illustrate her fears, sent statistics: “Of all the murders of females in 2002, family members were responsible for 43%.” Joseph Blaine Whisenhunt of Missouri created an image of a man sucking on a can of Mobile oil through a gas mask. One artist simply sent in an old box cutter.

Still others captured the irony of a project about fear by trying to shake up Chen and his associates. One anonymous artist sent a piece of paper with the threatening phrase “No Terror Show or Else” made out of letters from newspaper and magazine clippings. Yuri Psinakis sent the note “Give me a show or I’ll blow up your gallery.” You gotta love the attitude.

Submissions like those were just fine with Chen. He welcomed them. He didn’t want to give 9/11 too much credit for inventing fear, let alone allow it to have the corner on the market for this exhibit.

“How ADD is this society that we don’t remember shit,” Chen says. “We felt that [the fear surrounding 9/11] had been sentimentalized, and that it was our responsibility to talk about issues. And I think, maybe naively, that we’re doing something about it here.”

The UK’s John Darwell picked up on Chen’s request and made damn sure to remind people that fear and terror didn’t start at the World Trade Center. Through photography, Darwell captured his own horrific battle with depression.

Images show Darwell sitting in an abandoned mental hospital with a paper bag over his head and curled up in the fetal position on the floor in his underwear. Furniture in the room is rusted, paint is scraping off of the walls and bars cover all windows.

“Fear is a strange thing,” Darwell says via e-mail from the UK. “My fear of losing my sense of self is a very different fear to my phobia of water (or rather what’s in the water!) I can swim in the ocean and know full well that the most dangerous part of the day was the bus journey to the beach. But this doesn’t prevent my abject cold terror at the prospect of meeting something in the sea that wants to eat me.”

Darwell continues, “There is of course a huge difference between fear and terror. I can fear for my children in terms of what kind of world they will inhabit or fear I’m going to miss the movie I’d planned to see. But terror is something far more deep seated that can at times be totally irrational and is often fed by our picking up on such vibrations from people within our proximity. Whether this is an evolutionary sense of fight or flight I cannot say.”

1 comment

  1. Fear is a tool used by those in power to keep others in line. Case in point:

    Fox News internal memo leaked today, written the day after the election Senate results were in:

    “Let’s be on the lookout for any statements from Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress.”


    As long as people will submit to living in fear of the unknown, those who act upon it will have the advantage.

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