Dani Dodge: “Then/Now”
Reception Saturday, February 17, 4-6pm
Shoebox Projects, Los Angeles
By Jennifer Susan Jones
Two years ago, in an effort to overcome her profound fear of gunfire, former war correspondent turned installation artist Dani Dodge painted five large pieces of watercolor paper in soothing colors, purchased firecrackers, and drove to a remote dry lakebed where she placed the explosives over the painted papers. Then she set them firing. Remarkably, and for the first time in more than ten years, the artist didn’t startle at the cacophonous sounds. “Then” Dodge would shrink at the sound of a sudden bang, but “now” she had actively and creatively cured herself of this involuntary reaction.
Fast forward a year or so ahead and Dodge is on the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, driving to a mid-Wilshire gallery, when suddenly, tires screech, her body lurches forward, and metal and glass crumple in a dreadful symphony that halts as fast as it erupts. “As I sat in my car, “ Dodge recalls, ”checking to see if I was bleeding, and wondering how hurt the people were around me, what also came to mind was: ‘I survived. What does that mean? And how will I live my life differently?’ ”
Then/Now at Shoebox Projects is Dodge’s translation of the moment immediately following an accident where, if you are conscious, you have a choice to make: “Do you live your life in a better way,” Dodge asks, “since you have been fortunate enough to survive? Or do you go back to your old way of living? It’s the mythological choice of two roads, presented by the violent shock of metal against metal on your daily drive into work.”
One might consider reliving or revisiting an automobile accident (in which you and your car are sandwiched in a four-car pileup) a stalwart endeavor – in that accidents of this magnitude would be defined by most as traumas. Dodge however is not seeing this experience, or this art, from the perspective of trauma. She is, in fact, exploring quite the opposite: “I’m seeing it from the perspective of opportunity. How do we as humans take traumatic events and turn them into something that enhances our lives rather than diminishes them?”
In his 2015 book “Upside” journalist Jim Rendon delivers a deeply reported look at the life-changing implications of post-traumatic growth, an emerging field of psychological research that took its first tentative steps in the 1980s. Once researchers began to take their focus off of post traumatic stress disorder (or, PTSD) and instead shift toward the positive changes initiated by trauma, studies revealed that about half or more of trauma survivors report positive changes as a result of their experience.
Within the space of Shoebox Projects, Dani Dodge knew she had the opportunity to create something experimental and without judgement. So, with this in mind, after the accident she began collecting the building blocks of her upcoming exhibition. Dodge has since collected video footage of accident scenes she has witnessed. She has collected cracked windshields. She has, bit by bit, collected the memories of other people’s accidents, and in doing so she has found that the “moment of clarity” phenomenon is fairly universal – but unfortunately easily forgotten. This then was her impetus for creating Then/Now. “With this exhibition I wanted to remind others of that moment. Because, hey, if you live in the Los Angeles area, it’s likely you have lived through one or more car crashes.”
When asked for this feature if Dodge could elucidate upon an earlier ordeal she’d experienced, she told a story about herself as a newspaper reporter living in Oregon, writing an adventure column, where she’d either come up with a fun, crazy adventure, or she’d attempt to engage in adventures offered by reader suggestions:
“One spring,” she recalled, “a friend suggested I write about taking horses out on their first ride of the season and what to watch out for. Of course, I was thrilled at the prospect and agreed. As we ambled past an apple orchard, a covey of birds burst from a nest on the ground at my horse’s feet. My horse was startled. It began racing breakneck speed down a row of the trees. I looked ahead and saw a barbed wire fence. I couldn’t get the horse to slow. I was worried if I tried to turn the horse we would hit a tree (remember, I was inexperienced). So, I figured I would jump it. I had seen horses jump on TV many times. Whether it was my attempts to mimic a horse jumper or the horse finally seeing the barbed wire fence, I don’t know, but the horse did jump. Unfortunately, its hoof hit the barbed wire and we both went head over tea kettle into a field of dried, mown thistle. Fortunately, the horse was OK. I had a concussion and the emergency room nurse spent what seemed like hours removing thorns from my body. I haven’t been on a horse since. Not because I fear horses, but because I know I don’t have the knowledge or the experience to be riding a horse at this point and wouldn’t want to endanger another animal. If I had the time, I could train, but I spend all my free time on art now. I leave riding to people who know what they are doing and who can take better care of their animals.”
The fact that Dodge does not possess a fear of horses after a run in such as that, is a testament to her resilient character. She also stated that although she experienced some PTSD symptoms after her work in the war, she has had no lasting symptoms as a result of the car crash (though she was shaky and a bit traumatized for a day or two after the accident and took a few days off of work). “I guess I’m just tougher now,” she said. Indeed so.
Just following the crash, Dodge reported that no one involved had severe visible injuries. The cars however, she said were downright smooshed. 911 was dialed and first responders were there within a few minutes. They mostly wanted the drivers’ pertinent information, and the details of the crash.
Although this exhibition is not about raising awareness about traffic safety, it can’t be ignored that we are living in an age of distracted drivers. If you are ever involved in a serious crash, whatever the reason, Dodge asks that you look within yourself and decide how you will respond to it. “Do you look at the broken windshield and realize how fortunate you are to be on this earth, or do you curse the events that put you on that freeway and in the middle of that vehicle sandwich?”
According to Rendon in “Upside,” when clinical researchers began interviewing their scores of patients that had survived traumas, they began to see that although these patients did suffer, the pain was not the end of the change wrought by these events. Suffering proved to be a kind of catalyst that pushed people to find new meaning in their lives. After more targeted research, the resulting data was grouped into five distinct areas of positive (post-trauma) change: increased inner strength; an openness to new possibilities in life; closer and often deeper relationships with friends and family; an enhanced appreciation for life; and a stronger sense of spirituality.
Dodge is hoping you’ll glean some of these positive changes by experiencing Then/Now. And here is a summary of how the installation will look. Visitors will go through a three-phase journey that begins with the task of threading themselves through a gauntlet of rotating soft sculptures that resemble pastel auto parts. “This represents our life before: the mad dash. The silliness. The ducking and the panting to get through each day.” After dodging hub caps, visitors will find themselves in a room with video projected on the wall. Road music will be popping and soft-focus scenes of driving LA freeways will be interspersed with memories of childhood and, somewhat prophetically, vehicle crashes on LA streets. Next, Dodge describes, there will be dead silence and it will be dark for nearly 20 seconds before a vintage TV will flicker to life on the opposite wall. “A very different video plays there. Visitors must decide is this anthropomorphized object a survivor, a grim reaper, or is it them?” Then, visitors will see car windshields that have been manipulated into sculpture. This represents the moment of decision. What do you want for your future? Is it a broken windshield, or a thing of beauty?
When asked if she’d become a “tortoise or a hare” following a hypothetical ‘six month to live’ prognosis (the tortoise slowing down to absorb the beauty and nuances of life and the hare speeding up to do it all before time runs out), Dodge said she’d – without a doubt – be the hare. “At one point in college,” she said, “an X-ray showed a lump in my lung and my doctor suspected I may have lung cancer. My friends and I went on an eating binge (since I would lose the weight during chemo anyway) and a wig buying frenzy. I visited Disneyland and did the “scary” rides. I went dancing every night. I tried out for a play and got the lead. Two weeks later, doctors determined I didn’t have cancer. I had walking pneumonia.”
Dodge is hopeful that viewers will emerge from Then/Now with a greater appreciation for life. If we can recognize the fragility of human existence, we can learn to live more fully, and appreciate the beautiful, amazing things this lifetime has to offer. “There are many forks in the road in our lives. Many come upon us unexpectedly, like car crashes on LA freeways. The question for each of us is how do we move forward? Do you subjugate your life to fear, or do you forge onto becoming a more authentic self?”