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Before the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, sculptor Paul Myoda was working on a public art installation in the World Trade Center. Yet, even after the devastating effects of that day, Myoda managed to find amongst the rumble of the Twin Towers, a reason to look up. Along with artist Julian LaVerdiere, Myoda created “Tribute in Light,” an art installation of beaming lights shining in the same location of the lost buildings. The work has become one of the most recognized artistic responses to the tragedies of that day. He joins Hyperallergic for a conversation on commemorating 9/11 through public art.
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Ana Alvarez: While reading the history of this piece, there is an excerpt of your story that I found especially inspiring. You mentioned that since “Tribute in Light” was erected 6 months after the attacks; a Ground Zero worker told you that the piece was finally an opportunity to look up again. Now, ten years later, the work, as featured in the cover of Time Magazine, shines out from the city but the vantage point looks back down into the whole world. My question for you is, after ten years, when you look back down to the city, down to where the towers used to sit, down to whole planet which was affected by this tragedy — what do you see? Is it what you expected ten years ago?
Paul Myoda: After it became clear that there were no more survivors to be rescued down at Ground Zero, there were two equally forceful, but totally contradictory ideas which people were throwing back and forth: one was to recognize the pit, or Ground Zero, as sacrosanct and to treat it like a graveyard; and the other was to immediately rebuild the WTC just as they had been.
Honestly, I swung back and forth between these extremes, everything was just so confusing, so heartbreaking. What did become clear was the thought that we needed to take a long, long time to decide, to heal, to put things in perspective and proportion.
I think I did always believe that things would be built downtown, bigger and taller and more ambitious. I mean, it’s NYC, a machine for superlatives. What I was most worried about, though, was the anger or bloodlust you could sometimes feel in the city, especially around ground zero. I think these two endless wars have largely drained those feelings, but I fear they have drained so much more of our country that we realize. Last night, I saw Rudy Giuliani talk and he was saying 9/11 was a best of times-worst of times kind of thing. Worst, because of all of the victims, best, because it gave us so many heroes. I guess this is what it means to say we don’t need anymore heros.
AA: The response to Tribute in Light has been overwhelmingly positive; people seem to think the work gives them an image of the attacks that connotates hope and healing and an everlasting remembrance of that day. This to me is heartening, since most of the images connected with the attacks are ones of violence and war. It is works like these that give me reason to believe that public art is able to connect people, to form solidarity during times of hardship. As a sculptor, what do you think a work needs in order to be successful in helping people make sense of that day? What other artistic responses to the attacks have you appreciated or found successful?
PM: I was recently at Bryant Park in Manhattan, just behind the New York Public Library, and saw the 2,753 chairs they had set on the green to represent the number of people killed in the WTC on 9/11. I think this idea — making a number very concrete by having an object stand for a victim — is a very powerful sculptural gesture. It’s been used in a lot of contexts, I mean just consider gravestones, but there’s still such a strong resonance.
AA: Finally, as the nation takes this weekend to look back, what will you be doing this 9/11?
PM: I’ll be on the roof of the parking garage where we have again installed the “Tribute.” This year we’re having a small ceremony there, and will be launching a drive to help fund the “Tribute” in the future. I’d be fine it this was the last year, in a way that would signal that we are on are feet again. We shall see, it’s up to New York to decide.
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“Tribute in Light” will be visible at the site of Ground Zero during this weekend.
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