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Guest Thinkers

Picturing 9/11: Elena del Rivero at The New Museum

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, artist Elena del Rivero was in her native Spain, far away from her second home in New York City. When the towers fell, her studio on Cedar Street, directly across from the World Trade Center, filled with the debris from the disaster. For the next five years, del Rivero meticulously and meditatively worked her way through those fragments to create [Swi:t] Home: A CHANT, 2001-2006, a unique memorial to that unforgettable day to be exhibited at The New Museum on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. del Rivero weaves the stuff of horror into the stuff of thought and beautifully renders a focal point upon which we today can reflect upon that sad day as well as the days ahead of us.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I worked in an office like every other office—filled with desks, computers, and countless reams of paper. When I saw the images from New York City, the elements that stuck most vividly in my visual memory were, first, the snowfall of memos streaming from the stricken buildings, and, second, the suffocating cloud of white dust blooming from the fallen buildings that seemed to pursue people down streets like a predator. The people choking on the dust covering every inch of them looked like ghosts emerging from the wreck. Of course, the dust contained the pulverized remains of victims, so there truly was a spectral quality to their appearance. The ghosts of the towers walked in the shoes of the survivors, even those of us far beyond the dust clouds.

Elena del Rivero often uses domestic chores such as sewing and cleaning in her work. Upon returning to her studio, she faced a mammoth task of cleaning out and sewing back together the fibers of her life in her adopted homeland. Instead of tossing out the debris that shot through her windows and “moving on,” de Rivero “moved on” by treating each of the 3,136 burned pieces of paper she found as a holy relic. In sewing those pieces of paper onto 500 feet of cotton mesh (detail show above), which The New Museum will string from about their lobby gallery, del Rivero recreates the billowing and enveloping effect of the predatory clouds of debris and transforms them into a safe network within which to consider mortality and memory.

Thinking back to my early impressions of the snowfall of paper from the Twin Towers, I remember wondering whose names and other personal information had been cast upon the winds and where it would land. Fortunately, some of those papers landed in the tender grasp of Elena del Rivero. Those offices could have been anyone’s office. Those papers could have borne anyone’s name, including mine. [Swi:t] Home: A CHANT, 2001-2006 succeeds in drawing us into the “life” within that debris of death by lovingly rescuing the names and information on those pages. It would be easy to turn the page and throw away those lives, but this piece by Elena del Rivero forces us to stop and look and think.

[Image: Elena Rivero, [Swi:t] Home: A CHANT, 2001-2006. Courtesy the artist and Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C., 2008. Photo: Chan T Chao.]

[Many thanks to The New Museum for providing me with the image above and other press materials for the exhibition of Elena Rivero’s [Swi:t] Home: A CHANT, 2001-2006, which runs until October 2, 2011. Please note that admission is free to The New Museum on September 11th.]


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