Let the avalanche of September 11 exhibitions begin. As the tenth anniversary of the attack approaches, the art world gears up to remember and reflect (and sometimes capitalize) with some of the bigger (and most intriguing) shows slated to run at blockbuster institutions like the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA PS1 and the New Museum, as well as the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum itself at the World Trade Center site on September 12. This Wednesday, I attended a small and intimate show at 7 World Trade Center that was a bit of quiet before the storm.
Stories above the patched up wound that will soon be the completed 9/11 Memorial, painter Todd Stone has been diligently documenting the destruction and evolution of the site in watercolor and oil paint, starting from when the first plane struck. Two series of paintings, Witness, works from the actual day of the attack, and Downtown Rising, which records the subsequent changes in Downtown Manhattan, are exhibited on the 48 floor of 7 World Trade.
7 WTC, as it is often know, was the last building to crumble on 9/11 and the first to be reconstructed by the developer Silverstein Properties, who invited Stone in 2009 to set up a temporary studio on the 48 floor before it was leased out to tenants. Three years later the artist remains in-residence, although Stone admitted to me that the floor could already be leased to someone. “I would probably be the last to know,” he said.
Everything about Witness/Downtown Rising, from its concept to its location, is in flux, which flies in the face of the show’s demands that we remember and remember well. Several of Stone’s paintings are relics of the site’s previous incarnations, showing views that no longer exist of singed buildings and haywire construction.
In others, the footprints of the massive memorial fountains emerge out of the ground that was once a wasteland. Stone’s impressive use of watercolors in some works adds to the ephemeral nature of his subject. There is a translucency to the watercolors, so that images appear to simultaneously materialize and dissolve. In his time-lapse renderings of the events that occurred on September 11, thick clouds of gray, white, black and red smoke are ethereal, yet terrifying. The watercolors in these pieces lend an element of texture and dynamism that is absent in Stone’s flat oil paintings.
I left the show thinking about the duality of witnessing and what it means to revisit these devastating images of the attacks ten years later. On one hand witnessing and remembering are important, especially when many disasters around the world are so often pushed to the collective subconscious, leaving room for history to repeat itself (even though it inevitably will no matter how much we try to remember). On the other, witnessing also feeds into our need to relive a trauma over and over again in the hopes that it will somehow become more tangible, or prepare us for future catastrophes. The media has taken this and run with it, inaugurating an era in which blind fear is invoked at every corner. It begs the question, at what point does viewing these images become gratuitous and prevent us from interpreting the event and its consequences, which we are still dealing with today?
The show also sparked another observation/question: Why is so much art about September 11 figural? Would an abstracted work be dishonoring the attacks by virtue of avoiding the image of the actual event? Would it still be witnessing or would it cross the line into pure aestheticism?
No matter the answer, the obsession with the image of the attacks still clouds our conscious, even as the site itself comes back to life. It’s an obsession I very clearly remember feeling for weeks after September 11. The TV was never off in my apartment. I glued my eyes to news special after news special on how the towers fell, how the attacks were planned, could it happen again. And footage of the planes crashing looped like a broken record. I wonder if after the memorial is opened and the tenth anniversary passes on, will closure finally be achieved or will we still relive the traumas of that day through the smoke, fire and wreckage that continue on in images and in our mind’s eye?
Witness/Downtown Rising opened on July 27 and will be on view until September 12 at 7 World Trade Center, 48 floor (250 Greenwich Street, New York).