ArtIssue 17

Lest We Remember

Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11, 9/11 Memorial Museum. Ongoing.

One of the most harrowing events of the century so far was indisputably 9/11, and not only for the pernicious foreign policy of US interventionism in the Middle East that it was used to justify. As a tribute of remembrance The National September 11 Memorial was resurrected at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centre stood. A global design competition, won by the architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker, resulted in the creation of the two largest manmade waterfalls in North America – deep cascades into the earth surrounded each by a ‘memorial’ reflecting pool. Around the edges of these water features are inscribed the names of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack. They flank the vast 9/11 Museum Pavilion.

The establishment of the museum two years ago caused widespread controversy. First, the World Trade Center was situated in ‘Little Syria’, an epicentre of American-Arab life from the 1880s until the 1940s. When preservationists called for the inclusion of this history and something of the St. Joseph’s Maronite church (an archaeological find amidst the rubble of the towers signifying the multiculturalism of the area’s very foundations) they were rejected. Further, the museum’s $24 entrance fee and the 9/11 paraphernalia available in the museum gift shop – which had eventually to stop selling an emblazoned, US-shaped cheese platter – were also thought to be in bad taste. So too was the booze-heavy VIP vernissage, which particularly served to offend the families who lost loved ones in the atrocity. But, apparently unabashed, the museum still holds a repository of nearly 8,000 unidentified remains, alongside 11,000 other ‘found objects’ destined to be artefacts in one of the world’s most macabre collections.

On September 12 this year the museum opened its first art exhibition: Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11. By far the strongest and most compelling body of work is by Michael Mulhern; ‘Ash Road’ is a set of six 8ft-square paper works affixed to canvas. Mulhern was closely affected by the tragedy: he was working in his 9th floor studio at 125 Cedar Street, facing the South Tower, on the morning of 9/11. The explosion shattered all the windows in his building and his studio was engulfed by smoke and debris. Grabbing his respirator and goggles (used in his work with aluminum paint), he managed to help others evacuate. But ash had blanketed his entire studio as well as his painter’s palette; thus he decided to incorporate the debris from the disaster on canvas.

A number of other artists in the exhibition were also inspired by the attack’s debris, and the best work here rises from such rubble. Doug and Mike Starn show work focusing upon the strewn pieces of paper that floated all the way across the Hudson; Gustavo Bonevardi and Donna Levinstone were inspired by the clouds of dust emitted from the Twin Towers. The work of these four artists is worth careful study and silent contemplation.

But much of the rest of the exhibition is metaphorically detritus. A work found to be particularly offensive by New Yorkers is Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman. Initially displayed in Rockefeller Plaza in 2002, it refers to those individuals who threw themselves out the windows of the Twin Towers; Fischl created a series of life-size bronze sculptures depicting nude women at the moment of impact with the ground. Considering the closeness to the tragedy of other artists in the exhibition (Colleen Mulrenan MacFarlane’s father was a deputy fire chief who had been working at Ground Zero; Christopher Saucedo lost his fireman brother in the North Tower) it seems egregious that the most objectionable work was by an artist who “through the news media from his home on eastern Long Island […] felt an urgent responsibility to use his art to help people make sense of what had happened that day.”

But, as if it were possible, one work stands out as having even less affiliation with the tragedy: Exhibit 13 by The Blue Man Group. These blue men are three slack-jawed morons who cover themselves in paint and run around the stage in Las Vegas banging on banjos and such. Their only tenuous connection to the disaster is that a few months after 9/11 they were contacted by FBI because they suspected that one of the terrorist hijackers (on the American Airlines Flight 11) might have attended a Blue Man Group performance in Boston on the evening of September 10, 2001. Having attended a performance myself, one wonders if that relationship wasn’t causal.

This lack of context is also present throughout the main body of the museum, which, one is tempted to agree with Philip Kennicott in the Wall Street Journal, is an “oversized pit of self-pity, patriotic self-glorification and voyeurism, where visitors are allowed to feel personally touched by the deaths of people they didn’t know; where they can revel for a few hours in righteous grievance.” The perfect example of thoughtless misappropriation is that of the quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid displayed prominently on one of the walls: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The museum would presumably have this “you” refer to the victims in the attack, but in the Aeneid Virgil speaks of two Trojan soldiers who are lovers, Nisus and Euryalus, who ambush sleeping enemy soldiers and slaughter them in an orgy of violence; they are remembered for their horrific crimes, and their heads are impaled on spears. That seems better, then, to serve remembrance of the terrorists.

And this thoughtlessness echoes throughout the whole museum, which should be radically altered by the directors or missed altogether by visitors. The 9/11 memorial is necessary for the remembrance of those who lost their lives in the tragic attack on the Twin Towers, but the $20.95 ‘Memorial Water Bottle’ from the museum gift store undermines the gravity of that loss. Perhaps future art exhibitions will be able to reach a balance between education, contextualization and commemoration in a way that the 9/11 Museum does not.