Fifteen years after the devastation in lower Manhattan that is routinely referred to as 9/11, the site that was once Ground Zero is unrecognizable. The Twin Towers have been replaced by Michael Arad’s memorial Reflecting Absence, anchored by two voids in part of the space once filled by Minoru Yamasaki’s skyscrapers. Adjacent to it is the September 11 Memorial Museum by Davis, Brody, Bond that abuts the busy downtown thoroughfare of Greenwich Street. Once again it is a bustling site, filled with tourists and those who work in the surrounding buildings and use it as a crosswalk; if anything it is busier than the open plaza that once stood between the towers and featured, among other sculptures, Fritz Koenig’s The Sphere (damaged in the attack and displayed for a time as a relic in Battery Park). Standing in the midst of this flurry it is hard to remember the scene of the crime that wiped out so much of lower Manhattan. It has been effectively erased, sudden death replaced by teeming life. The memory lingers on, however, not prompted by the site that originally defined it, but by both the memorial and museum that in various ways reenact the experience.
Staring into Michael Arad’s voids, with the sound of the waterfalls that line their perimeters roaring in your ears, you confront a black empty hole. The effect is one that mimics the sound and experience prompted by the crashing buildings–over and over again. This is emphatically reinforced by the museum in many places. Visitors descend into the main space where the first experiential installation is a cacophony of sounds recorded on the day of the bombings. Further on you encounter a series of relics, building parts that survived and took on an iconic significance (the survivor staircase; the slurry wall; the last column removed from Ground Zero, the beam that became known as the survivor cross; a section of beams that Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggested would make a fitting memorial). Nearly everywhere there are reminders that one is standing in a place that many consider a literal cemetery, especially since actual remains of unidentified bodies are contained behind a wall that fronted by a grid of blue squares. Spencer Finch’s Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning reproduces the various shades of blue on that defined what seemed for a time a perfect New York late summer day.
To mark the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks the museum will mount its first temporary art exhibition inaugurating a special gallery built for that purpose, thereby expanding its focus from the historical artifacts that thus far defined it to contemporary art that responds to the attacks. “Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11” will open on 12 September 2016 and is, according to director Alice M. Greenwald, “a way to bring people back to the museum for a second time, and it’s a way to bring people in who might not choose to come otherwise.” The works by 13 artists will include Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman (2002; Whitney Museum of American Art) that was previously installed in Rockefeller Center’s indoor underground concourse around the time of the first anniversary of the attacks. Because it suggested images of falling bodies that had previously been largely suppressed in the media, it prompted cries for its removal that were successful; the sculpture was on display for just a week. Fischl’s comments initially appeared inconsistent. At one time he noted that he began working with this image a year earlier when he took photographs of a model tumbling around on a studio floor; he also said that he created the work in response to the death of a friend who had worked on the 106th floor of one of the towers, “by making a monument to what he called the ‘the extremity of choice’ faced by the people who jumped.”
Elsewhere he associated pose of the work with the falling sensation that often occurs just before waking. Just recently, however, he declared that the work “was meant to represent those who fell or jumped from the towers in what he called ‘the clearest illustration of the level of horror’ that day, as well as his sense that the country had become less sure-footed after the attacks.” But he now sees an element of hope in the in the extended arm of the woman because he “’had this fantasy that if this sculpture is out in public people will reach out and grab the hand’…in an attempt to connect and also maybe to slow the tumbling down.” In this wish to somehow halt the events of the day, however briefly, maybe even changing their outcome, he reminds us of the Tribute in Light, the temporary twin beams initially created by Julian La Verdiere and Paul Myoda that lit up the night sky first on the six-month anniversary of 9/11 and every anniversary thereafter. Evoking the missing towers, if closely observed the particles of dust that seem to be the basis of their composition are visible, returning us again to the memory of so many and so much being cremated in an instant before cameras that carried these images to the far corners of the world. Reenactment, it seems, defines our memorial experience, but isn’t it time to refocus on lessons learned? Where do you think we should begin?
Featured image: 9/11 Memorial. Photo by Christopher Michel. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.