PRINT November 2001

READING 9-11-01

Moving Pictures

In the days following September 11, it was agreed upon by just about everyone that art, along with everything else, was going to “change forever.” No one was clear exactly how, except in the negative sense of “unlike this,” so many responded by putting a cloak over works, to hide them, if only for a little while, until they’d figured out what to do next. The Empire State Building’s art gallery, for instance, removed a 1945 photograph of a plane crashing into its facade. A radio network issued a ban on songs ranging from “Fly” by Sugar Ray to “American Pie” by Don McLean to “Imagine” by John Lennon. Two performances of the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen were canceled in Hamburg after the avant-garde composer called the attacks “the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos.”

Helen Molesworth, curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, found herself confronted with the question of what to do with Christopher Wool’s Untitled, 1990, a large painting, stenciled with letters forming the word “TERRORIST,” that greeted museum-goers at the entrance to the contemporary wing. When Molesworth learned from guards that some visitors were reacting violently to the image, she decided to stash it out of sight temporarily, until the museum could have a chance to “recontextualize the work after it had already been recontextualized by life.” “People were crying, they were really upset by it,” Molesworth says. “Using the private art language of the institution, you forget just how public a space a museum really is. . . . People had come here to get away from the TV and then were confronted with this image. I could totally understand it.”

After consulting with several colleagues, Molesworth decided to put the painting back up, adding a brief statement setting the work in the context of language art in general and the social politics of life after the attacks in particular, along with viewer-response cards. “I was really afraid we’d get xenophobic commentary, but not at all,” she says. “The painting has actually become a platform for lively conversation and debate here, as perverse as it is to say.”

The artist Nancy Davenport was also faced with a decision about whether to continue to show certain work. “The apartments,” her show featuring photographs of New York dwellings suffering tiny Photoshopped terrorist assaults, opened at Nicole Klagsbrun on September 6. In one image, a dense cloud of black smoke puffs from behind a row of buildings as a missile approaches. In another, a man stands on a rooftop, aiming a pistol at an overhead plane. “I began the series around three years ago, and my intention was to make art about conflicts between political idealism, individuals, and institutions,” Davenport says. “I wanted to raise questions about the interdependency of terrorism and institutional violence against the background of a failed avant-garde. I didn’t want it to be about spectacular cinematic effects. I wanted it to be more objective, quiet, drained of color.”

In the aftermath of the attacks, Davenport found her quiet effects quickly drowned out by the loud noise of real life. The Village Voice requested use of one of the photographs in the show—a picture of a body falling through space titled Suicide. “My impression was they wanted to run it juxtaposed with a photo from the Times of someone jumping from the World Trade Center,” explains Davenport. “But my image was part of a longer engagement with the idea of falling in general. It’s not supposed to be horrific at all. The work had nothing to do with the way people would see it.” Thus she refused (indeed, Davenport took Suicide out of the show altogether), allowing the Voice to publish an alternative—and scarcely less discomforting—image of a missile strike. She says she thinks it’s going to be difficult to talk about formal issues in her photography for a while.

On the other end of the social-aesthetic spectrum, the Viennese artists Gelatin had an opening scheduled for the evening of the attack. The show was to feature photographs documenting The B-Thing, 2000, an elaborate piece that involved the artists removing a Trade Center window to install a stumpy “balcony” for just enough time to have a furtive cup of coffee before they restored the facade to its original condition. Their dealer, Leo Koenig, Internet pied piper Josh Harris, and a group of party-goers watched the whole operation from a nearby hotel and from a helicopter. The action was reported over a year later in an August New York Times article that included complaints from WTC officials about the potential for bodily harm to passersby below—not to mention the artists themselves. “Our piece was a very simple, nice thing,” says Gelatin member Ali Janka. “It was a physical extension of the building. The architect made the windows a little bit narrower than the width of his shoulders, so as not to be overwhelmed by his fear of heights. Our balcony was also a physical reaction—we just wanted to step out and see the sunrise.”

Gelatin canceled its opening reception, and when they finally did open their show, they decided to leave out the World Trade Center work. “I was shocked when I saw the blurry images of people hanging out the windows, thinking about jumping, thinking about their lives ending soon.” says Janka. “These images looked so similar to the pictures we took with that one window missing. That really scared me.” But despite this visual similarity, as well as the fact that their project involved the physical deformation of the Trade Center, Janka insists there is no connection between the two events, and says that their work will go on unchanged: “It’s not like the world was any better before this attack. It’s just that the people who were dying were doing it elsewhere. This attack was really horrible. But we live in Vienna. There was war practically ten kilometers from our studio for ten years and we continued our work.”

Other artists, while not compelled to remove their work from display, still felt that its meaning had been completely transformed. John Pilson, for example, found his photographs, shot in the World Trade Center and shown along with Davenport’s at Nicole Klagsbrun, to be deeply changed in regard to the reality they referenced. Pilson’s images were based on movies he’d made the summer before—while in residence with the World Views studio program on Tower One’s ninety-first floor—of a pair of lawyers walking through a labyrinth of cubicles, singing do-wop tunes, interrupted occasionally by images of a black-clad man being pelted with tennis balls. The work, Pilson says, was meant to convey that “life down there wasn’t just lockstep corporate culture, it was everything. There was romance, daydreaming, laughter. It was a village of small communities.” But as much as he’s tried to communicate the pixieish, fairy-tale side of the WTC, Pilson now sees the very existence of the building itself as something out of make-believe. “The corporate reality is now mythical. To describe the enormous towers and the things that went on in there to a kid in the future will be like, ‘Once upon a time, there was this world . . .’”

Richard Phillips’s show “America”—seven works “meditating on the idea of personal sovereignty and freedom”—had been up at Friedrich Petzel Gallery for just one day when the terrorists attacked. The show included paintings of such varied subjects as the plaster cast for the Old Grand Dad Whiskey icon, a woman shooting liquid from her vagina, naked identical twins in an erotic half embrace, a painting of George Segal’s Stonewall Monument set against a twenty-two-carat-gold background, as well as a portrait of George W. Bush, with a stifled smirk, set between magenta panels. The portrait of Bush, Phillips says, was intended to be a neutral rendering of the “emblem of the maximum amount of human power in the free world, an emblem of freedom, but the most public form of freedom, mitigated, fraught with contradiction, subject to skepticism.” Liberation Monument, 2001, the Segal takeoff, was an attempt to depoliticize the model on which it was based and to “focus on its humanitarian aspect, on the idea of human love and compassion between people.”

But the attacks changed all that. The white figures in Liberation Monument now recall WTC survivors, covered in dust. And as for the portrait of the president, Roberta Smith of the Times delivered herself of the opinion that all of a sudden, one “could read dignity and monumentality into it, as if it were a mock-up for a carving on Mount Rushmore, and see the deep magenta panels flanking the face as an attempt to mix red and blue.” Phillips says he actually intended the magenta to evoke the ’80s-retro vibe of the younger Bush’s presidency, but is well aware that people are now less likely to get this: “The portrait’s been separated from the rest of the show. It’s become an image of almost patriotic importance, which is much less evident when you see the thing next to the orgasming woman and the naked twins.”

Of all the art on view in Manhattan at the time of the attacks, none was as immediately connected to—and affected by—the event as Wolfgang Staehle’s To the People of New York, 2001, a live-feed video projection of the Lower Manhattan skyline installed at Postmasters on September 6, and renamed Untitled a week later. Accompanied by views of a communications tower in Berlin and a thousand-year-old monastery in southern Germany, the work was collectively “about communication,” says Staehle. “I was thinking about the TV tower, and monks transcribing documents, and about the Internet—about how memes travel and are preserved.” Updated every four seconds, the images possess a kind of dynamic stillness. “I wanted viewers to consider how they experience time. Are you aware of it or not so aware of it? We’re all running around all the time. I wanted to make people feel aware.”

On the morning of the September 11, soon after the second plane hit the towers, gallery owner Magda Sawon hurried to watch the scene unfold—on Staehle’s screen, without commentary. Later, Staehle and a couple of his friends went over. “One friend, who comes from the new-media scene,” Staehle says, “said, ‘This work is really relevant now.’ And I said, ‘Why? It is what it is, it’s just a witness.’ And the other friend said, ‘If anything, this casts a shadow on it. It’s a calamity. The work is changed and ruined.’ I said, ‘You’re both crazy.’ But in a way, it is changed, because everyone asks me about it all the time.”

After the attacks, the media came calling, and Staehle was hesitant to provide editors and reporters what they asked for. (He even admitted to qualms about showing the stills in Artforum. See Centerfold, pp. 129-131.) “Certain people, Americans with a certain sensibility, regret that the possibility for irony is gone. They want to be lighthearted. I have less tolerance for frivolous things. The way I look at art has changed. I’m happy that mine holds up, that it’s not out of place. And Magda said she would rather have this piece up now and not some bubble paintings. But really, it’s too early to talk about it. My landscape painting suddenly became a history painting. Everything’s changed.”

Adam Lehner is a New York-based writer.