Collective Cultural Memory

On the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, an exhibition at Moma Ps1 examines their impact on our perceptions of culture.

In the decade since September 11th 2001, images of the events have proliferated media and culture to the extent that many of us have an internal slideshow of horrific snapshots that define the tragedy. In most cases, these images will be a blend of news footage from the day itself and iconic photographs, perhaps even blurred with images from the movies that have re-imagined the tragedy: Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006) and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006). Just as images of the events have been inescapable, their significance politically is impossible to overestimate, as global events continue to be shaped in their wake. As Jean Baudrillard wrote just two months after the attacks: “Not only are all history and power plays disrupted, but so are the conditions of analysis.”

Having opened on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Moma Ps1’s exhibition September 11 addresses the cultural impact of the tragedy. Rather than showing works produced in direct response to the attacks, or images of the events themselves, curator Peter Eleey has decided to focus on the way the events of 9/11 have shaped our responses to and perceptions of works produced, for the most part, before 2001. The exhibition features 41 artists and more than 70 artworks across a range of genres, styles and time-periods, connected in a fundamental way only by the force of the interpretative framework of the show’s title.

“Part of the job that museums and curators undertake is to bring the past to bear upon the present and to speak for the intentions of the makers and the conditions of the time in which the art was made”, acknowledges Eleey, “but in part we do so because of the way that history works with impunity upon art and changes the meaning of it all the time. The scale of the cultural violence of September 11th was such that it provided a way to think about that dynamic and force of history.”

The works in September 11 are therefore experienced as slightly disconnected from the context of their making, repositioned and heavily coloured by what the philosopher Jacques Derrida called the “hauntological” spectre of 9/11, profoundly altering the way they’re interpreted. William Eggleston’s iconic Untitled (1970) is a photograph of an aeroplane window in front of which sits a tumbler filled with what looks like the deep autumnal amber of a Manhattan cocktail. In the jading brightness from the window, the tumbler casts an imposing tower-like shadow, skewered as if through its heart by the cocktail stick. What might be seen as a glamorous and confident picture of flamboyant capitalism is, when encountered against a backdrop of an exhibition reflecting on the events of 9/11, suddenly heavy with a resonant foreshadow of the tragedy. An eerie foreshadow is also present in Two Lower Manhattan Wrapped Buildings, Project for New York (1980), in which Christo’s gesture can be interpreted as a compulsion to protect or shield the tall buildings; to wrap them up like an offering or gift, or as a premonition of the erasure of the towers.

As the location to the backdrop of the September 11th attacks, New York itself plays an important role in the exhibition, which includes many quintessential New York artists such as Alex Katz, Jane Freilicher and Maureen Gallace. Freilicher’s oil on linen, Dark Afternoon (2001), features a plant and vase of flowers on a bright yellow tablecloth looking out to a dull grey cityscape that seems to veer up in the background. The plant and vase themselves look a little like parallel structures, but more than that, there is a dynamic in the image between life and death. Death is symbolised by the giddy yellow of the cut flowers, which will soon die, brown paper petals already strewn across the table; life, by the sturdy, less flamboyant but longer lasting green of the potted plant.

A sombre painting by Katz of two silhouetted parallel trees calls to mind not only the twin towers, but also a sense of duality; the shadows the towers cast in the mind even when they are absent. Similarly, a Diane Arbus photograph from the 1950s of a newspaper tumbling across a New York intersection is haunted in retrospect by echoing connotations of the important, frightening junction that September 11th posed. Blowing Newspaper at a Crossroads, N.Y.C (1956) is a dark, misty image where only the road is visible and there’s an invisible black mass where you might expect a building to be at the side of the road. The context of the image’s origin also resonates. The photograph is suffused with a sense of historical momentousness and an atmosphere of constant apprehension that came to dominate America and the world during the Cold War era of the 1950s and which is analogous to the decade that’s just passed and the impact that 9/11 has had on America’s sense of itself in the world. As Eleey points out, the World Trade Center attacks forced America to look outside of itself towards the world in terms of foreign policy but have also engendered a counter turning inwards “away from a solidarity with other victims of terror and violence,” a dynamic not dissimilar to the situation in the Cold War.

The scarring of recent events into the way we experience the art of the past is articulated in Mary Lucier’s early video installation Dawn Burn (1975). Lucier used an early video camera to capture the sun as it rose over the east river. In pointing the camera at the sun, its brightness exceeds its capacity burning a hole in the camera tube and indelibly scarring any videotape made with the camera. Lucier exploited this accident by filming the sunrise from the same spot on seven consecutive days, allowing the burn-marks to multiply, overlap and expand. The resulting videos are played on progressively larger screens next to one another. Dawn Burn is an extremely lyrical metaphor for tragedy that is too immense, too spectacular and horrific, to be processed head-on. It is also a comment on the lasting scarring effect strong images can have on our perceptions and interpretations of other images.

In the weeks following September 11th in 2001, Janet Cardiff’s sound installation The Forty Part Motet (2001) was on display in Ps1. As part of September 11, Eleey has had the piece reinstalled in the same room that it occupied a decade ago. If by focusing on artworks for the most part created before 2001, September 11 is an exhibition about how we see the culture of the past through the lens of what has happened more recently, the decision to reinstall Cardiff’s sound installation a decade later suggests that the present is also haunted by the blueprint of the past. The work itself is a reimagining of a 16th century piece of choral music in which Cardiff recorded each member of the choir individually and then installed the individual recordings through speakers in a large circle. The voices are experienced both distinctly as individual recordings and chorally as part of the wider whole. Against the backdrop of events immediately following September 11th, Cardiff’s installation spoke to the experience of the tragedy as both personal and individual, but with a much wider impact and significance. The curious blend in The Forty Part Motet (2001) of individuality and co-dependence is an articulation of how we experience and see things both personally and communally.

Harun Farocki’s 2007 film Transmission is one of the most recent works included in the show. The film visits pilgrimage sites around the world that tourists feel compelled to touch. Beginning in Washington at the Vietnam Memorial, the film focuses on stone monuments and the act of touching them, moving on to locations including Rome, Munich and the Buchenwald concentration camp. Although not produced in direct response to 9/11, Farocki’s film is concerned with the implications and significance of how we memorialise and come to understand human tragedy. Thousands of people visit the stone memorials each day and trace their fingers along the engraved names of friends and family. Farocki’s film explores the role that memorials such as this play in establishing a link between our present lives and the past, and how they help shape a sense of shared cultural memory about events.

For the first month of the exhibition, Thomas Hirschhorn’s Mondrian Altar (1997) has been installed on a street corner not far from Ps1’s building in Long Island City, Queens. The piece takes the exhibition out of the museum, stretching outwards towards the public in a way that seems particularly crucial in the context of the show. “Among the most moving of the cultural responses to the events of September 11 was ad-hoc cultural commemoration and forms of street shrines, from missing posters that people heartbreakingly posted around the city to collections of flowers and candles at Union Square and other places,” explains Eleey: “It felt important to me to engage the public space in some way because of the remarkable history of public expression in response to the event.”

Hirschhorn’s shrine is an unusual artwork, its assemblage of pictures and posters, quilts and T.V. screens often approached by the public not as a work of art at all. In this case, there will be people who approach it without a familiarity of Mondrian’s work, who will assume it is a memorial to a recent tragedy of some sort; even, in some cases, members of the public might lay a tribute themselves, buying into the reference of the memorial in a way that transcends particulars. Hirschhorn’s piece reflects on and also invites a form of shared cultural signification. Visitors who know of Mondrian’s work, and who recognise Hirschhorn’s altar as part of an exhibition entitled September 11, might experience the work in an entirely different way. They might see the collapse of the twin towers as the collapse, too, of crisp geometrical lines; the collapse of a dream based on that mode of expression.

Susan Hiller’s installation Monument (1980-81) also deals with public commemoration. 41 photographs of plaques commemorating fatal acts of heroism in London are arranged in a diamond-like formation on a gallery wall. In front of the wall, there’s a wooden park bench facing away from the photographs. Visitors are invited to sit on the bench with their backs to the plaques to listen to an audio-track of Hiller ruminating on tragedy, heroism and commemoration through headphones while sitting on the bench. In order to experience this work fully, the visitor has to, as Eleey puts it, “turn away” from the images of the event commemorated and consider them through language and thought. The commemorative plaques are in a sense merely a trigger for the personal act of commemoration, which comes from processing the events and images intellectually.

Hiller’s installation forms a compelling analogy for what the exhibition achieves as a whole. By turning away from images of the attacks and works made in direct response to 9/11, the exhibition opens the viewer up to a more thoughtful and engaged examination of its effect on the way we see things in the tragedy’s wake. This impulse is also present in Ellsworth Kelly’s Ground Zero (2003), the only work in the show to specifically address 9/11 and, according to Eleey, an important work in shaping how he thought about curating an exhibition dealing with the events of 9/11. In Ground Zero, a proposal on the front page of the New York Times from the second anniversary of the attacks in 2003, Kelly puts forward a plan to leave the space of the World Trade Center site as a space; a green abstract field in the centre of Manhattan. Perhaps it’s best understood as an experiment, a starting-from-scratch with the belief that the context of September 11th is powerful enough in and of itself to provide the space to think through the tragedy.

September 11 ran from 11 September until 9 January 2012 at Moma Ps1, New York,

Colin Herd