“September 11”, an exhibition at MoMA PS1—the Manhattan museum’s little sister in Long Island City, Queens—opened on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Some weeks earlier, I asked Peter Eleey, the show's curator, to describe it. He placed our water glasses side by side on the table we shared, and gestured at this makeshift maquette of the twin towers. It was apt. “September 11” harnesses this haunting associative power, exploring the ways in which after-images of the attacks have infiltrated our visual language.
The selection of 70 works on view avoids literal representations of 9/11; in fact, most of the work was created prior to that day. “My selections and their juxtapositions are notable primarily for their personal resonance,” Mr Eleey writes in his catalogue essay, “but I nevertheless hope that others find them evocative of various aspects of their own experiences of the attacks.”
He invokes W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939”, which circulated widely among New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11. Many were stirred by the poet’s description of “the odour of death…that offends the September night.” A similar significance rings from many of the works in the show. Alex Katz’s melancholy painting of twin reflections in blue-green water, entitled “10 A.M.” (above), recalls the towers. Never mind that the work dates from 1994. The image of a lonely newspaper blowing down a New York City street is barely perceptible in a nocturnal photograph by Diane Arbus from the 1950s. One’s imagination zooms out to the chaos of Lower Manhattan, amid the papers and detritus of the towers’ collapse. Down in the boiler room of the museum, the creaks and clamour of Stephen Vitiello’s “World Trade Center Recordings: Winds after Hurricane Floyd” from 1999 are a horrifying premonition of disaster.
Perhaps the most eerie work, a short film by Jem Cohen called “Little Flags”, assembles slow-motion footage of a parade held in 1991 to mark the end of the first Gulf War, filmed in downtown Manhattan with the World Trade Centre in the background. Mounds of confetti and ticker-tape in the streets bear a spooky resemblance to the debris of the attacks ten years later. But strangest of all is the behaviour of the pedestrians in Mr Cohen's film, who go about their business as if walking through 9/11 but not noticing that it's happening—as though the atrocity is both buried and present.
For the pieces created after 9/11, I found myself wondering whether the artist’s references were intentional. Two pieces by Harold Mendez, an artist from Brooklyn—“Better off then than when life was babble?” and “Nothing Prevents Anything”—are made from bulletin boards rescued from college dorms, pocked by staples and dog-eared bits of paper. They evoke the ubiquitous flyers put up by the families of victims in the days after the attacks.
But the poetic subtlety of the show is marbled with political motifs. A large-scale silkscreen by Barbara Kruger, dating from the first Gulf War, appropriates the American flag to pose questions about power, nationalism and authority. An abrupt change from the melancholy mood of the adjoining galleries, the work evokes the voices of those who thought the American government’s War on Terror was an exaggerated response. And “Snapshots from Baghdad” by Roman Ondak consists of a disposable camera with undeveloped film, suggesting the images the West has both refused to see and failed to exhibit.
Critics of post-9/11 art often allude to the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s comment that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Ten years on, rendering the trauma of the attacks through art is indeed still fraught with questions of sensitivity and taste, not to mention the challenge of grasping the enormity of the event and its significance. Eleey admits that he risked “misusing” art in such a charged context. But by coming at the event obliquely, the show becomes a rewarding exploration of the complex ways we process 9/11, of how the event unfolds in our imaginations, and of the passage of the last ten years.
“September 11” runs at New York’s MoMA PS1 until January 9th 2012.