Art as hostage of history

In the exhibition September 11 at MoMA PS1 in New York historical artworks are trapped in a game diminishing them to substitutes for the dramatic events that took place ten years ago.

Mary Lucier, Dawn Burn, detail, 1975. Video installation, seven channels.

This year marks a decade since terrorists seized four planes and used them in a coordinated attack against the USA: two were flown into the World Trade Center towers, one hit the Pentagon, and one crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. During these ten years the USA has worked through the sorrow, but the terrorist action has also been used as an alibi for a series of dubious political decisions, torture, and tyrannical acts. The attacks—which killed nearly 3,000 people—have been used to justify thousands of new killings.

Here in New York, the ten years since the attacks have been marked by many events. Newspapers, billboards, checkpoints, and blockages tint the city and relive the trauma which has set deep physical and psychic scars in the city. At a shopping center near Columbus Circle, directly adjacent to Central Park’s southwest corner, a series of enormous Polaroid photographs by Joe McNally are displayed. They portray the emergency workers, police and fire crews, and others attempting to save lives and return circumstances to normality at Ground Zero after the attacks. Between the photos are interviews that portray life ten years later. The Polaroid images show a whole figure easily recognizable in a uniform or other work clothing against a white backdrop isolating the figure from time and space. The person is raised to heroic status.

Harun Farocki, Transmission, 2007. Video, 43 min.

But what role can art and exhibitions take in such a situation? Should art offer direct representations of the terror attack? Can art create a more nuanced picture than one of heroes and villains? What is one to remember? How can analysis be formed? How is perspective created? Art has often been used in the service of memory, but are monuments and documentation sufficient? Several exhibitions and institutions in New York have chosen to reflect on the attack, and one of the most important—and most paradoxical—is curated by Peter Eleey at MoMa PS1 in Long Island City.

In this exhibition, simply titled September 11, Eleey has consciously avoided direct representations of the terror attacks. The exhibition does not even present works dealing with the direct consequences of the event. Instead many works date from before 2001. But a substantial number of the curator’s selections function as substitutes. Instead of showing people jumping from the skyscrapers, the curator chooses Sarah Charlesworth’s Unidentified Woman, Hotel Corona de Aragon, Madrid from 1980: a picture of a woman jumping from a hotel. Instead of twisted metal fragments from Ground Zero we find John Chamberlain’s King King Minor, one of Chamberlain’s signature steel sculptures. Here Eleey has cast the sculpture in role of ruin. And instead of seeing the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, we find an atomized airplane motor spread out in the exhibition space as gray and black ash. Eleey’s play of associations, in which the reading of the work is framed by the terror attack, even though the work was produced long before 2001, is trying and at times tasteless. Eleey doesn’t want to show how the world looks, but how we see the world after 9/11. But the curator traps works in a game in which they are diminished to stage props or substitutes. Even though the desire to avoid direct representation of what happened September 11th is understandable—one doesn’t want to make a shopping-center exhibition—the absence and suppression of the actual events manifest themselves in the exhibition as a sweaty specter. This repression also limits the exhibition’s critical potential and neutralizes art and artists’ political position.

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet, 2001. Reworking of “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui,” 1575, by Thomas Tallis.

The exhibition seems almost too smart and enthusiastic in attempting to satisfy an art audience. The rooms at PS1 are thematically clear and offer a series of well-known artists. Many of the works appear political on the surface, but the critique also eludes us under Eleey’s curatorial grasp. Jeremy Deller’s Unrealized Project for the Exterior of the Carnegie Museum is a banner with the words “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” on the red, white, and blue of the American flag. Haroun Farocki takes up the potentially auratic and magical effect connected with certain monuments and sculptures; a video shows a long series with tourists standing in line to touch the foot of a sculpture of St. Peter—either as a tourist tradition or as an invocation.

Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet is surprisingly gripping. Her work, like many others in the exhibition, is given a specific role of addressing sorrow. Forty speakers are arranged in a circle; they fill the room with forty individual voices singing a sacral choir song from 1575. It is experienced bodily and is laden with feeling. Fiona Banner’s work Black Bunting consists of black garlands covering the ceiling in the hallways of the old school  PS1 occupies, like invitations to a somber party. Both works are effective, but are captives of the exhibition’s context, which the curator pulls over all the works like a mask.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Mondrian Altar, 1997.

The work with the most humor is located two blocks from PS1. Thomas Hirschhorn’s Mondrian Altar surrounds the corner of a residential building and is a memorial site for the artist Piet Mondrian: his works and vision of color, along with various manifestations of him in popular culture, design, and advertisements. The memorial teases Mondrian somewhat and takes a jab at the idea itself of creating monuments, either as carefully formulated public ventures or as apparently improvised and naive gestures. Back at PS1 Eleeye takes his largest risk when he plays the music from the soundtrack of the American film The Patriot, composed by John Williams, in one of the exhibition spaces. Thus Eleeye departs from the list of known artists, even from the field of visual art, and invites a composer best known for the music in Star Wars and ET. Perhaps several such risks could have challenged this exhibition’s sometimes neutralizing reading of art’s role in connection with September 11th and shown how the USA and the world, in the wake of something like 9/11, have treated political reality through art, music, film, literature, and propaganda.

Translation from the Norwegian by Richard Simpson.