Editor’s note: As we near the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, I asked a few curators for their thoughts on how the event has influenced art-making. Today’s response comes from Walker Art Center associate curator Bartholomew Ryan.
We live in a post 9-11 world, and as such one could say a post 9-11 paradigm, where all art is implicitly or explicitly enveloped in the events of that day and its aftermath. Of course, depending on where you live or on your cultural-political background, you may also be living in a post-Hurricane Katrina world, or a post- Iraq War world, or a post-other-major-traumatic-event world. Deciding what works to write about in this context is not simple. Because of the size and impact of the event, any list of art that has some relation to 9-11 is naturally going to be deeply partial, subjective and personal. I am going to mention four pieces briefly, and leave it at that.
Ellsworth Kelly, Ground Zero, 2003
Image: Whitney Museum of American Art
American artist Ellsworth Kelly’s Ground Zero, 2003 was exhibited at the Walker in 2010 in a Yasmil Raymond curated exhibition titled Abstract Resistance . It is also one of the few works that directly references 9-11 in the upcoming MoMa PS1 exhibition titled September 11 , organized by former Walker curator Peter Eleey. The work features a green triangle collaged onto a New York Times Arts & Leisure section reproduction of the Ground Zero site. It is the artist’s response to different suggestions for memorials and buildings at the World Trade Center of all of which he disapproved. He proposed instead a “visual experience,” a mound of green grass that could function as a space for public communion.
Red Alert, 2007
Video on plasma monitors
Courtesy of Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany
© Hito Steyerl
Kelly’s abstract representation speaks to something very key about how many artists respond to trauma, not trying for a literal representation of reality, but something less tangible and somehow broader in vision and possibility. Another work that responds in a directed way to the post 9-11 paradigm is Red Alert, 2007 by Berlin-based artist and theorist Hito Steyerl. A triptych, it features three identical computer monitors hung vertically side by side on a wall. They each play the same looped video of a deep red color. To look at the work is to see three static glowing fields of color emanating from the wall. The piece relates to the artist’s deep thinking through of the status of the photographic image, digital particularly, in contemporary life. In recent texts, Steyerl has pointed out, cable news and other media have begun to set a value on images where the lower the resolution, the more fragmentary they are, the more they can be seen to be representing the truth. And so the highly pixilated cell-phone image of a foiled bomber on a plane, or the virtually abstract live-video feeds broadcast by embedded journalists during Operation Iraqi Freedom, are perceived to be the most authentic documents of real lived experience: the less you can see, the more that is being revealed. This observation led Steyerl to imagine a final state for the documentary in pure abstraction, though perhaps not that pure. The chosen color for the monochromes is based on the color of highest terror alert determined by the Department of Homeland Security. So even though visually abstract, the color is coded with significance: It has been ingrained in the psyche of those of us who live in this country as a constant symbol of ongoing dangerous potential. At any moment, the color reminds us, we may be attacked.
Eiko & Koma’s Event Fission is a work that they performed in Manhattan’s downtown Battery Park Landfill way back in 1980 when the Towers were spanking new. Japanese-American Choreographers who are no strangers to the Walker and the Twin Cities, Eiko & Koma’s approach to dance has evolved over the years into a deeply subjective, personal style. In the video documentation of the performance, Eiko holds aloft a white flag on a pole. She dances along a ridge with the Downtown skyline in the background, seeming to joust with the buildings, most particularly the iconic towers rising steely from the ground. Herself and Koma join forces, move down the ridge, dance and dig a hole into which they fall creating a plume of dust. The work has an insouciant, innocent quality, but is also provocative, especially with hindsight. The exuberance and life of the dancers seems in strong opposition to the bold authority of the buildings in the background. For many people, many of them artists, the towers were symbolic of finance-driven values that they did not share, and while wishing them no material harm, they could critique the kind of world they seemed to represent. After the buildings fell, Eiko & Koma, New Yorkers since 1978, made a new work of mourning and commemoration titled Offering, 2002.
Michael Richards, standing next to his work “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian”
Image courtesy: The Studio Museum in Harlam
The last work I will mention is titled Tar Baby vs San Sebastian, 1999. A bronze sculpture depicting an air force pilot with multiple airplanes penetrating his body, the work memorializes the Tuskegee Airmen, a celebrated and segregated air force unit during WW2 made up of African American pilots. The allusions to torture in the work reference in part the famous U.S. Government medical experiment in which African-American sharecroppers from Tuskegee were told they were being cured of syphilis when in fact they were being observed to see how the disease would develop in their bodies. The sculpture is part of a series by the artist Michael Richards, who understood that history is beset by traumas and wanted to help reveal them and make sense of them. Richards was artist in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on September 11th. Their studios were on the 92nd floor of Tower One. Consequently he was one of the many tragic victims of that very tragic day.
What art resonates most with you when thinking about the events of 9/11? Share your thoughts in the comments section.