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art life mental health psychology

Trauma

How experiencing a traumatic life event can feel like you’re watching it on TV (even if you’re Andy Warhol)

Did you ever go through something traumatic in your life and get the sensation that everything slowed down and you were watching it happen on TV or in a film? The correct term for this is ‘dissociation’ and many people experience it. It may feel like you’re disconnected from yourself and the world around you, detached from your body or as if you’re watching yourself in a film. Dissociation is a way the mind can cope with too much stress such as during a traumatic event.

Legendary artist Andy Warhol once experienced this and it inspired him to produce the picture of a gun above. I once saw this Andy Warhol picture at Tate Liverpool but didn’t realise that the gun depicted is very similar to the one used, on June 3 1968, to shoot him. On June 3, 1968, radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas shot Warhol at his studio.

The woman who shot him was Valerie Solanas who had been a known figure on the scene having written the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, a feminist tract that advocated the elimination of men (sounds like good, frothy, holiday reading). At 2:00 pm that day she apparently went up into his studio looking for Warhol. She rode the lift up and down until Warhol finally appeared. They entered the studio together. The phone rang; Warhol answered. While he was on the phone, Solanas fired at him three times. She missed twice, but the third shot went through both lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and oesophagus. She then shot art critic Mario Amaya in the hip. She tried to shoot Fred Hughes, Warhol’s manager, in the head but her gun jammed. Hughes asked her to leave, which she did. Warhol was taken to hospital where he underwent a five-hour operation.

Amaya received only minor injuries but Warhol was seriously wounded and barely survived. Surgeons opened his chest and massaged his heart to help stimulate its movement. He suffered physical effects for the rest of his life, including being required to wear a surgical corset. The shooting had a major effect on Warhol’s life and art and lead to death being a theme for much of his subsequent work.

Above, Warhol shows the wounds caused by the shooting. The actual moment-by-moment experience of being shot must also have been a life-changing, work-changing experience. The shooting was very real but to him felt unreal. I’ve had moments in my life where certain things (usually events which are shocking or upsetting in some way) happen and it’s like time slows down; the whole thing’s like a dream. Like when you’re in a car accident or you stupidly break your leg falling off a skateboard and you feel like you’re watching it happen in a film. Real things can feel unreal (as with the shooting) and unreal things can feel real (as with images of iconic celebrities).

Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.

ANDY WARHOL

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