For New Yorkers, the attacks of September 11, 2001 called everything into question — not least for artists, who struggled to understand and commemorate the deadliest day in the city’s history.
Ten years after 9/11, New York’s museums, theatres and concert halls are overflowing with representations of the attacks and tributes to its victims. A host of photography exhibitions revisit the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ destruction — including one by Joel Meyerowitz, the only non-government photographer allowed into Ground Zero. Lincoln Center, the city’s largest arts centre, is presenting a free public dance performance timed to coincide with the moment the first plane hit the North Tower. The artist Faith Ringgold invited schoolchildren to help her create a quilt in remembrance of the day, which is on view at the Metropolitan Museum.
Yet some of the city’s younger cultural figures have concluded that the best way to commemorate 9/11 is not through literal representations of the disaster, but through a more oblique, indirect form of mourning and remembrance. In 2002 the New York Philharmonic commissioned a memorial work, John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, which included recordings of city street sounds and recitations of victims’ names. But for this anniversary Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s thoughtful new conductor, has chosen to programme a far older work: Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, a 100-year-old masterpiece about human suffering and redemption. The Phil is giving out all of its tickets for free and the performance will be broadcast on US public television.
Rereadings and associations are also the strategies of a new exhibition opening at PS1, the avant-garde gallery now affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art. Starkly entitled September 11, the 41-artist show includes only one work about the attacks; in fact, two-thirds of the art on display was made before 2001. The exhibition instead presents works to be read through and around the disaster, such as a 1950s Diane Arbus photograph depicting a sheet of newsprint blowing through a New York intersection.
“It’s not intended as a memorial, but a way of thinking differently about the attacks and the aftermath,” explains Peter Eleey, the exhibition’s curator. “Images of the attacks are already burned into our collective imagination. The images were part of the act — the terrorists planned for something that would be spectacular and widely circulated, and those images would reinforce the terror. I want to try to look elsewhere.”
There’s no shortage of powerful depictions of New York’s most awful day: Claire Messud’s novel The Emperor’s Children, Spike Lee’s film The 25th Hour, or Seamus Heaney’s poem “Anything Can Happen”. But on this anniversary, Gilbert and Eleey are proposing that art needn’t represent falling towers to convey the horrors of September 11, or to help this vibrant but heartbroken city grieve for the citizens it lost.