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Xu Bing collected and saved the dust from the obliterated World Trade Center. Ten years later, this preserved dust is the centerpiece of a temporary art installation inside an empty storefront near Madison Square Park.
In this retail space left raw, unpainted and un-manicured, a large elevated wooden platform invites viewers to walk towards the back of the abandoned space. At the end of these boards, one looks over the railed edge onto the dust spread across the floor.
The dust was blown around by a leaf blower before it was allowed to settle on the floor. Stenciled into that powder is a quotation from a Zen poem that reads:
As there is nothing from the first,
Where does the dust itself collect?
Broadly speaking, the work’s symbolism has two interlocking layers to unpack in turn — the significance of the dust as material and the poem’s meaning.
Dust is not the perfect word for this strange powder that haunted New York City like a ghost after the attack. It floated in the air above Ground Zero. It blanketed lower Manhattan and was carried by the wind. It even crossed over the water into parts of the outer boroughs. It is a deft move to create art out of a substance that is so singular and unique to this traumatic day.
Gazing at the work for a long period of time at the preview on Tuesday, what struck me most was the powder’s strange fluorescent white hue. It is unlike dust’s other colors.
Let’s expound on the dust color-spectrum. This WTC residue does not resemble the dark gray house dust that gathers in our dustpans. Nor does it look like the white feathery ashes that accumulate at the bottom of BBQs and fireplaces. Nor does it appear like speckled medium gray ashes that collect in ashtrays. Comparing these more common textures and hues with this unusual dust is a chilling mental exercise.
This is powder from incinerated skyscrapers, desks, offices and planes. And spread across the wooden floor, its unfamiliar hue pulls off a strange and eerie glow.
Aided by a translator at the opening reception, my friends and I delved into the poem’s significance with the artist.
Xu Bing lifted the phrases from an ancient zen poem by the revered Hui Neng (638-713), the sixth patriarch of the Chan sect. In order to flesh out the quotation’s full meaning, it is necessary to briefly retell the legend. So buckle your rhetorical seat belt.
Raised as a poor peasant, Hui Neng never learned how to read. As a novice entering the monastery, he was placed at the bottom of the pecking order and completed menial tasks in the rice mill.
Nevertheless, the illiterate novice went on to become sect’s next leader by unexpectedly winning a poetry competition.
Hui Neng wrote his wining poem in response to the submission from the competition’s front runner, Shenxiu, the monastery’s number two figure. Despite his high position, Shenxiu’s poem below disappointed his leader seeking a successor:
The body is the bodhi tree;
The soul is like the mirror bright
Take heed to keep it always clean
And let no dust collect upon it.
This poem romanticizes purity. It compares the soul to a clean and perfect mirror, and extols readers to work hard to keep clean and dust free.
Seeking to pass the baton, the leader was more intrigued by the “dust happens” poem spoken by the illiterate Hui Neng (and dictated by a gracious solider):
The bodhi (true wisdom) is not like the tree
The mirror bright is nowhere shining
As there is nothing from the first;
Where does the dust itself collect?
The poem reminds readers that all mirrors get dirty, that nothingness is deep (let’s not touch that one) and that because dust falls everywhere and constantly, no mirror, or anything else for that matter, could ever be totally pure and dust free.
Interesting! But what does a zen duel over dusty mirrors mean 1,500 years later? And how does it connect with 9/11? The answer is our attitude towards trauma.
All of us were touched by the dust of September 11th in some way — like mirrors in Hui Neng’s poem. And just as dust keeps coming back to collect on the mirror’s surface, this trauma will return again and again to our psychological surface.
The Zen Masters grasped long ago what therapists tell us today: dusty grimy feelings are to be expected but with the right attitude, they are not unbearable. By provocatively exploring dust as a physical object and existential metaphor, Xu Bing gives some fresh insight, albeit from an old zen source, for processing the tenth anniversary.
“Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?” will opened to the public on September 8 and will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 12-6pm through October 9. The installation is inside the Spinning Wheel Building (5 West 22nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Flatiron, Manhattan) and done jointly by LMCC and the Museum of the Chinese in America.