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September 9, 2011
Three Ways to Look Back, None Easy
By ROBERTA SMITH
Many people assured us that we would never forget, and they were right. The attacks of Sept. 11 were the most extensively witnessed and recorded events in history, a spectacle, as the hijackers intended. The towers exploding against the crystalline blue sky, the white dust cascading, the panicked office workers — these are all seared in collective memory. But in New York City right now it is possible to choose among several very different ways to remember. The exhibitions mounted to commemorate Sept. 11 and its fitful, excruciating aftermath vary tremendously in scope and effect. Three in particular — at the School of Visual Arts, the International Center of Photography and MoMA PS1 — form an unexpectedly illuminating progression.
Taken together, these shows proceed from raw, inchoate data, to documentarylike orchestrations of evidence, to art. The sequence is surprisingly consoling, even though its culmination — “September 11,” the elegiac, supple exhibition at PS1 — contains little art that pertains specifically to Sept. 11. The shows both stir and soothe very different kinds of pain and awareness, calling forth an intense and confusing panoply of emotions while also reassuring us about human persistence and art’s sustaining power. The most visceral experience of the day’s murderousness is provided by “Here Is New York: Revisited” at the School of Visual Arts’s Westside Gallery. It reprises the impromptu exhibition of images of the attack and its aftermath taken by both professional and amateur photographers that sprang up in two small storefronts in SoHo in the days after Sept. 11. That show was an early example of crowd sourcing; its original subtitle was “A Democracy of Photographs.” About 300 of some 6,500 images ultimately submitted to this project are presented here, clipped, as they originally were, to wires strung along and sometimes between walls, a little like laundry hanging out to dry. Jumping around in time and space, they form a kind of heart-wrenching Cubism. One picture shows the second plane hitting the south tower — just barely touching it, almost like a kiss. Others show people being rescued, holding one another, weeping, running for their lives. We see the plaza at Union Square covered with comments in chalk, anticipating the immense shrines of candles, photographs and memorabilia (also pictured) that would accumulate. A monitor shows part of a documentary about the original exhibition. We hear from its organizers, from people who contributed photographs and from those who lined up around the block to see them. “People will look at these pictures as long as people look at pictures,” one man says. These voices, and views of the low-ceilinged spaces dense with visitors and images, convey some of the wounded openness of the immediate aftermath of the attacks. “Remembering 9/11” at the International Center of Photography turns more completely to the aftermath. Organized by Carol Squiers, a curator at the center, it presents five groups of images that are self-sufficient archives, shows within the show. There is a selection of images from “Here Is New York” here, too, some of them the same, although they seem more subdued without the documentary accompaniment. Otherwise, strikingly distinct viewpoints and circumstances prevail. The black-and-white images that the veteran photojournalist Eugene Richards took around ground zero but also at the homes of some of the victims’ families give the show a soulful core. Their sensitive compositions and muted emotions sometimes seem almost comforting, as if the pictures depicted a smaller, more manageable tragedy from another time.
The remaining three contributions concentrate on the physical aspects of ground zero, letting the facts speak eloquently for themselves. In a five-channel video installation called “cedarliberty,” the artist Elena del Rivero, collaborating with Leslie McCleave, a filmmaker, begins by sifting through the debris that blew into her studio overlooking the World Trade Center. She then turns her camera to the grueling hell of the large-scale cleanup, visible from her window day and night: the scores of workers, the mountains of twisted metal and the gargantuan earth-moving machines, the processions that formed when human remains were removed from the site. The scale of devastation becomes more explicit, yet slightly abstract, in 49 aerial views of the chasm that was ground zero selected from thousands taken by Gregg Brown, who photographed the site from a helicopter every day for nearly eight months, beginning on Sept. 15, 2001. He was first hired at the behest of the New York Fire Department, which was trying to track fires in the towers’ wreckage, and then by the New York Department of Design and Construction. He also periodically photographed the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where material from ground zero was sorted into startlingly organized expanses of matchsticklike metal beams, debris and crushed rescue vehicles. During the cleanup, some pieces from ground zero were sent to Hangar 17 at Kennedy International Airport, to be preserved for the future National September 11 Memorial & Museum. In 2009 the artist Francesc Torres photographed some of the 1,500 objects that accrued; 140 of his images are presented in five projections that form an enclosed, engulfing environment. This grim collection ranges from business cards, computers, stuffed animals and children’s clothes to fire trucks, police cars, immense beams of steel and concrete. The presentations in “Remembering 9/11” remind us that while we were all witnesses, some witnessed more, or more particularly, than others, accumulating documents that, if not quite artworks, bring us closer to the unbearable reality of the events. “September 11,” which opens Sunday at MoMA PS1, is much more about art than about documentation. More than two-thirds of the 68 works in the show were made before the attacks, and only a few that came after refer to it explicitly. If the other shows push us to face death, this one, which has been organized by PS1’s curator, Peter Eleey, reveals tragedy as one of art’s inevitable undercurrents, even when we don’t quite realize it. It is there, for example, in a nearly all-black painting of trees at twilight from 1994 by Alex Katz, or a beamlike form wrapped in red tarpaulin by Christo from 1964-66, as if ready for burial at sea. It is there more explicitly in the 18 immense collages that make up Willem de Rooij’s “Index: Riots, Protests, Mourning and Commemorations (as represented in newspapers, January 2000July 2002).” Its images, cut from newspapers around the globe, document public expressions of extreme emotion, including some in reaction to Sept. 11. The medium echoes Richard Prince’s arrangements of appropriated photographs; the message might be said to answer the grief of “Here Is New York” with “Here Is the World.”
Mr. Eleey has arranged the show with lapidary precision and enough space to create an implicitly contemplative environment. This is not to say that the artworks don’t interact, sometimes with more power than they might have on their own. The exhibition’s center is a large gallery with a George Segal cast-plaster sculpture of a woman seated on a bench; she seems to gaze at a mass of gritty black and silver powder on the floor, swept-up debris that also suggests a Japanese rock garden. A scatter piece by the British artist Roger Hiorns, it is the atomized engine of a passenger airliner. The symbiosis is effectively disrupted by hollow, blustery background music that turns out to be the theme from the 2000 movie “The Patriot,” composed by John Williams. Mr. Eleey worries in his catalog essay about framing these artworks in ways that have little to do with their original intentions, but he often amplifies their resonance, emphasizing the way art shifts and expands with time and what we bring to it. The works range from strident (Barbara Kruger’s vocal 1991 reimagining of the American flag, strung with questions like “Who prays loudest?”) to barely audible whispers (Diane Arbus’s graphitelike 1956 photograph of a newspaper blowing across a New York intersection at night). And the tragic often mixes with something lighter, even funnier, as with Thomas Hirschhorn’s 1997 “Mondrian Altar,” a familiar array of flowers, candles and images commemorating that Dutch Modernist that is installed next to a bodega a block from PS1. At moments, we sense or glimpse the twin towers. They lurk, gigantic, for example, in the background of Jem Cohen’s “Small Flags,” an eerie film of the ticker-tape parade celebrating the end of the Persian Gulf war, in 1991, that shows us lower Broadway covered with paper, as it would be after the towers fell. Occasionally, the repercussions of that day are made vivid: Jeremy Deller has reproduced the printed vinyl “Mission Accomplished” banner that hung behind President George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in 2003. (More artifact than art, it should perhaps be considered for inclusion in the Sept. 11 museum.) Immense themes are lightly but movingly touched upon, including self-sacrifice (Susan Hiller’s photo installation “Monument,” depicting plaques that commemorate Britons who died saving others at the turn of the last century); faith (Harun Farocki’s video “Transmissions,” with its visitors to religious sites and memorials); and destruction (a crushed-car sculpture by John Chamberlain, which regains some of its original power to shock here). The show is bracketed by two amazing sound pieces. One, Janet Cardiff’s choral-music installation “Forty Part Motet,” a circle of 40 speakers (one per voice) conveying a piercingly beautiful work by the late-16th-century composer Thomas Tallis, is being shown in the same gallery where it went on view shortly after the attacks. In the basement boiler room, segregated from the rest of the show, a piece by Stephen Vitiello is equally immersive. It is a largely straightforward recording that he made on the 91st floor of the north tower during an art residency in 1999: he simply attached microphones to the window while Hurricane Floyd lashed the city and let his tape recorder run for eight minutes. The intense,
wailing wind and groaning building give voice to an architectural behemoth while conjuring airplanes and gunfire. “Authentic art has no use for proclamations ...,” Proust wrote, “it accomplishes its work in silence.” Not everything in Mr. Eleey’s show is as quiet as Proust would have liked, but taken together, the ensemble provides solace. Spreading the pain of Sept. 11 among artworks rarely made with it in mind, it shows us something larger than ourselves and also more enduring, and that is human expression itself.