UWAG exhibit: Exploring felt experiences of trauma Laura Magnusson tells her story of sexual violence on her own terms in I was Wearing Golden Clamshell Earrings

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Trigger warning: This story contains references to sexual violence and assault which some individuals may find distressing

To give meaning to our experiences, we must take them from the emotional state — the way they exist in the feeling body — to the external world of language. But what if there are no words, no combination of letters that do justice to the feeling? How do we bring those experiences to the surface and give them form?

Sometimes, we attempt to silence these feelings and memories altogether, banishing them into the shadows. But what if there were another way to explore this darkness and the felt experiences that live there: rejection, abandonment, betrayal, trauma, and violence? 

When words stop having weight, where do you go?

This notion of representing felt experience — particularly experiences of sexual assault and violence — is at the forefront of Montreal-based artist Laura Magnusson’s show I was Wearing Golden Clamshell Earrings, opening at UWAG on Jan. 12. 

In 2013, Magnusson sat in front of RCMP staff and attempted to translate the sexual assault committed against her into terms the authorities could understand — to answer the question, what happened to you? 

“I was asked to give a statement very shortly after the violence happened, and I couldn’t articulate in words,” she said. “So I drew. And that sort of became the first visualization and moving toward visual languages to express felt experiences of trauma.”

The exhibition tells Magnusson’s story using everything except words: video, installation, sculpture, drawing, and archival materials. Water features prominently in the show as a medium with the power to heal and also, to destroy. A 16 by nine-foot projection wall features the show’s centrepiece: a 12-minute silent film where Magnusson traverses the bottom of the “tundra-like” ocean floor carrying an oxygen tank and wearing a parka and winter boots. The film was shot 70 feet underwater off the coast of Mexico, where Magnusson learned to dive following her assault.

“There’s a different kind of temporality associated with water,” she said. “Something inherently cyclical.”

Humans long to make sense of things and fit them into what is known. In this way, there is an attempt to classify trauma and contain it within linear time, the abstract ‘then’ versus ‘now’ — but for its victims, it is rarely experienced this way. Trauma is stored both in the physical body and the subconscious, often emerging periodically throughout life. It can be almost impossible to make sense of these sensations, and there is a tendency to disassociate in these moments. For Magnusson, learning to dive and working with water helped her reconnect with her body.

“There was something that allowed me to sense and to feel my body in a different way under water than I was on land … it was a very empowering experience,” she said. 

Another wall contains 74 ink drawings Magnusson made during her perpetrator’s court testimony extending 20 feet across the room. 

“I had noticed throughout [the trial] that my arm would always shake,” she explained. “So I had this idea of bringing in pieces of paper and a pen and just recording my embodied response on paper.” 

She brought a timer to the courtroom, and her counsellor would pass her a new sheet of paper at regular intervals. 

“I would just hold the pen and let [it] do whatever it would do,” she said.

The resulting images appear like the lines on a heart monitor and reflect the “visceral trauma response” Magnusson says she felt when she was forbidden to speak and ordered by the judge to keep herself under control.  

The metaphor of the clamshell also appears throughout the exhibit — from the parka sewn to mimic a clam’s growth rings to the sexual assault examination kit cross-sectioned into pieces and cast in resin. Archival materials documenting Magnusson’s dissection experience as she moved through the law enforcement, medical, and legal systems are contrasted with archival documents associated with Hafrún, a 507-year-old live clam dredged from the seabed in North Iceland — the same waters Magnusson’s ancestors used to fish. 

Magnusson was wearing clamshell earrings that night in 2013, and this is where the show takes its title. The wall between the archival materials reads, “the perpetrator ripped out the left valve; the RCMP confiscated the remaining one. Afterward, I began to see shells everywhere.”

A bronze cast of an authentic Arctica islandica (Ocean Quahog) clam descends from the gallery’s 20-foot ceiling to hang just above the ground. Its shell is held open with a brass medical swab, and a mirror placed inside allows the viewer to examine it.

“The show is really working with the figure of the clam, in some ways, as a metaphor for the invasive experience of sexual violence in thinking about the dredge and dissection of clams,” she said. “[There are] parallels between the way that we come to know things of the clam and [of] the body — through fragmentation and cutting up.”

Magnusson said clam shells became like waypoint markers, guiding her along her healing journey.

“The clam was all of a sudden the soap in the hotel washroom or [on a] mug … or there were embossed shells on napkins,” she said. “The clam, after the trauma, became this kind of guide… In some ways, I was led to Hafrún … [by] following the clam shells.”

Ultimately, Magnusson says her work has allowed her to reclaim agency over her story and communicate in ways that would not be possible with words alone. In a YouTube video reflecting on Blue, Magnusson quotes psychiatrist Judith Herman: “Trauma silences. It cuts us off from the world. Living with trauma can become bearable when survivors can share their experiences and have them be witnessed.”

The opening reception for I was Wearing Golden Clamshell Earrings is Jan. 12 at the UWAG from 5–7 p.m. The show runs until March 23.