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Guest Thinkers

Picturing 9/11: Introduction to a Series

The tag line of Picture This is “Looking at art leads to thinking about life.” That idea has never been truer than during the week ahead of us.

The idea that a decade has passed since that beautiful Tuesday morning when everything changed seems impossible to me. I can still see the stunning blue sky beneath which a whole country scurried like ants when a giant foot has upset the anthill. The events of September 11th live on in the films and still photos that document the human tragedy, but it is the artwork that those events have inspired that help us make some fragile sense of that epic insanity. For the rest of this week, I will be profiling the exhibitions that several New York City museums have staged to commemorate the event in different ways. The tag line of Picture This is “Looking at art leads to thinking about life.” That idea has never been truer than during the week ahead of us.

The different shows each pick up a fragment of the shattered world from 10 years ago. At the New Museum, Elena del Rivero’s [Swi:t] Home: A CHANT (2001-2006) takes the debris from the World Trade Center that literally flew in through the broken windows of her loft and creates a majestic tribute from the mundane. In gathering art made before the attacks, the MoMA PS1’s exhibition forces viewers to confront how those events colored our view of the world and of art itself and focus everything through the prism of that dark moment. The highlight of this déjà vu will be the reinstallation of Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (shown above) in the same exact gallery where it stood on the morning of September 11th, 2001. In that work, Cardiff recorded each member of a 40-member choir individually as they sang a 16th century choral piece and then ran the voices through individual speakers arranged in a circle throughout the gallery. Visitors thus hear each voice individually as they move about. The individual voices silenced on that morning a decade ago will echo with a new resonance in this revisiting of Cardiff’s work.

The prevailing emotion these museums hope to instill is not anger or a thirst for revenge, but rather a desire for peace. The Rubin Museum of Art, which specializes in the art of the Himalayas, brings a Buddhist approach to the memorializing through their program Transforming Terror to run in early October. In a similar vein, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will host The 9/11 Peace Story Quilt designed by Faith Ringgold. Working with New York City students ages eight through nineteen, Ringgold looked to the future rather than the past. In looking in depth at each of these exhibitions, I hope to tap into that hopefulness in the future Ringgold proposes. As a public service, most New York museums are opening their doors to the public for free on the anniversary. It’s therefore the public duty of every American (of every person on Earth, to be honest) to walk through those doors—either physically or virtually—and honor the memory of those taken on that day and, most importantly, open our hearts and minds to make sure such days never happen ever again.

[Image: Janet Cardiff (Canadian, b. 1957). The Forty Part Motet (2001). Reworking of “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui,” 1575, by Thomas Tallis. 40-track sound recording (14:00 minutes), 40 speakers. Dimensions variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Rolf Hoffmann, 2002. (c) 2011 Janet Cardiff.]

[Many thanks to the Museum of Modern Art for providing me with the image above.]


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