In the days, weeks, and months following the attacks of September 11, 2001, benign objects or routine situations often became harbingers of doom.
I would see a plane overhead and relive the passenger jets crashing into the Twin Towers, for instance. Or I would be walking on the sidewalk during a cloudless, crisp autumn day and feel overcome by memories of the attack.
Two billion people are estimated to have seen the attacks. How has the trauma influenced our daily perceptions of the world?
To commemorate the 10th anniversary, MoMA PS1 organized a group exhibition, titled September 11, now on view to January 9, 2012. Curator Peter Eleey has brought together more than 70 works by 41 artists — many made prior to 9/11 — to investigate the attacks’ enduring resonance.
Avoiding sensational images of the attack, as well as art made directly in response, the exhibition offers an entry point by which to contemplate the tragic event and its after effects and to look at the ways it has changed how we see and experience the world in its wake.
“Art has a long and complex history of engaging violence and catastrophe, and we often turn to it to help make sense of trauma,” reads the exhibition statement. “At such times, we may find resonance in culture created under different circumstances, which can transcend the specificities of its epoch, form or content to uncannily address the present.”
At the exhibition, I take a sheet of paper from one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres gravestone-like stacks “Untitled (The End).” I fold it, and place it in my jacket pocket as I walk into an adjacent gallery to see Bruce Connor’s 16mm black-and-white film “Report.”
The room is dark. The sounds of gunshots and sirens whirl and boom. By the time I take a seat in the front row and sit down, the film has started. The screen flickers like a strobe light. I try to adjust my eyes to the frantic pace.
“Report,” which re-assembles Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the JFK assassination, is a disorienting audiovisual assault. (Kennedy jerks forward. Jackie O. screams. Someone holds up a rifle in a crowded room. A voice says the President is dead.) I have to restrain myself from squinting.
I come to detect two identical oblong forms adjacent to the movie screen, hanging on a wall about four feet from the floor. They rest side-by-side with a six-inch gap between them. Due to the flickering light, they seem to emerge and recede in darkness. I cannot stop looking at them out of the corner of my eye.
At some point, the pair resembles another set of twins, i.e., the Twin Towers. Suddenly I am standing on the corner of West Broadway and Houston. The South Tower collapses like an old man fainting from the summer heat. A man beside me throws his hardhat to the ground; he crumples too. I am sitting on a couch in a small apartment on Sullivan Street. The TV is on. The North Tower collapses, just like the first one. Lower Manhattan is enveloped in a plume of ash, smoke and debris.
The scene wasn’t always like this. I must have been three or four years old the first time I saw the Twin Towers. I was sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, a white ’74 Dodge Dart. We were driving to Jersey City to see relatives. If memory serves, we must have been on the NJ Turnpike, somewhere near Elizabeth, New Jersey — some 16 miles away from lower Manhattan. A child from the suburbs seeing two giant buildings, tall enough to scrape the sky. This is Jack and the Beanstalk territory.
A voice says President Kennedy has been shot. Flashback ends. How am I to make sense of this odd pairing between film and wall pieces? What do these two rectangular forms hovering in the dark mean in relationship to Connor’s film? Is Eleey suggesting some sort of correlation between the attacks of September 11 and the killing of JFK? How does one tragedy compare to the other? Both are national tragedies that have been played and replayed. The “audiences” of both events must have felt as if the world as they knew it was coming to an end. Who is the artist, anyway, and when did he or she make the piece, and under what context?
The film concludes. The room goes black and the wall pieces vanish. I get up from my seat to look for an exhibition label to identify the rectangular forms. To my consternation, I find none. I leave the theater to ask a PS1 employee if she can help me identify the work. She looks puzzled, and says the only work of art in the gallery is Connor’s film. I describe the wall pieces; she reconsiders her answer. As she takes me into the gallery, I see the walls are not lined by one pairing of panels, but dozens. They wrap around the entire gallery like windows.
She identifies the objects hanging on the walls: stereo panels. That’s it. An artist did not make them, Samsung did. I believe this is an example of the “uncanny” effect Eleey mentioned in his exhibition statement.
On my way to the exhibition, I walked past a shuddered storefront on 21st Street and 45th Road. I saw a collection of candles, flowers, photographs, drawings and letters. Who died? I wondered. The street shrine resembled the makeshift sidewalk memorials that popped up in front of firehouses across the city in the aftermath of 9/11. I later learned the temporary memorial is not some spontaneous outpouring of grief, but part of PS1’s exhibition. Artist Thomas Hirschorn first created the shrine, titled “Modrian Alter,” in 1997, to commemorate the Dutch abstractionist.
September 11 is an effective, poignant exhibition. Eleey largely succeeds in his aim to create a subjective framework that invites viewers to revisit the tragic events. The most successful gallery in the show features the work of George Segal, Roger Hiorns, Harold Mendez and John Williams. In the context of the show, each work acts as a visual marker of the attacks. When paired together, they unleash a fusillade of memories and images that I have chosen to ignore over the past 10 years.
At one end of the gallery is a realistic sculpture of a woman sitting on a park bench by Segal. By her attire and appearance, she looks to be some type of businessperson in her late twenties or thirties. At the opposite end of the gallery, two paintings hang like a pair of bulletin boards by Mendez. (Staples run roughshod over the surfaces. Miniscule bits of paper jut from slivers on metal teeth. The staples with bits of paper remind me of the missing-persons posters around the city after the attack. It is as if the posters have all been torn down because there is no longer any hope of recovering any victims.) A large, sprawling pool of ash unfurls between Segal and Mendez. The floor piece, which Hiorns created from an atomized passenger aircraft engine, is a kind of scorched-earth topographical map. These objects were accompanied by a melodramatic music composition, which I found disconcerting at first. Unlike the physical objects, the music was full of sentimental bombast, reminding me of any number of terrible Hollywood soundtracks. The object label informed me composer John William wrote the score for the 2000 film The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson.
As I stood in the gallery, I let my guard down, and said hello to the paranoia, terror, shock, confusion and dread that defined much of 2001, and its ensuing years. This gallery is an illustration of the curatorial savvy that Eleey exhibits through much of the show. He brings together a range of artwork, not specific to September 11, to address the attack and its aftermath.
The show does have a few clunkers. Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (Questions)” is the number one offender. Like Jasper John’s flag paintings (but less interesting), Kruger’s silkscreen is a riff on Old Glory. (The stars are replaced with a statement: LOOK FOR THE MOMENT PRIDE BECOMES CONTEMPT. The red and white stripes are replaced with questions: “WHO IS FREE TO CHOOSE? WHO DIES FIRST? WHO LAUGHS LAST?”) Whereas the other work in the show invited me to explore my thoughts and feelings, her work hit me over the head with a ball-peen hammer. As soon as I saw it, I ran out of the room. The other clunker is John Chamberlin’s painted metal sculpture “King King Monor.” Unlike most of the artists in exhibition, Chamberlin’s sculpture had its own gallery. For me, it was too easy to read the work as a wrecked automobile. As a stand-alone piece, it felt too direct. I wonder what would have happened if the sculpture was paired with another work.
On your way out of the exhibition, make sure to check out Stephen Vitiello’s audio installation “World Trade Center Recordings: After Hurricane Floyd.” Vitiello affixed contact microphones to the outside of the North Tower post-Hurricane Floyd. The microphones recorded wind, air, ground traffic and the creaking noises of the tower.
This work, more than any other in the show, induced a palpable state of dread in me. It is located in the boiler room of the museum. As I sat on the bench in the small room beneath the street, I could feel the walls closing as the sounds of a 100-story tower lurched and teetered in the sky. Is this what it felt like for all those people trapped in the North and South towers?
September 11 continues at PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens) until January 9, 2012.