Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years After


It’s not possible to pass this day by without acknowledgement. It is too much burned into remembrance, even for those of us who weren’t there.

I was not in New York. I was in Ireland, visiting an elderly, ailing aunt. In fact, I got trapped there because planes weren’t flying. For a week I lived a strange life, visiting my aunt by day and up half the night watching CNN in my hotel room, trying to share, in some small way, the unfolding of multiple tragedies in New York. When I did get back more than a week later the city had recovered some, but not all that much.

The first morning back at work I immediately noticed the sadness on the faces in the subways and the quietness. Coming out of the subway that day, nine days later and two miles north of the site, I could smell it. Jet fuel. There was a hole in the skyline too, a hole where I had long since ceased to notice the towers that filled it. My office building had gone into near lock down conditions. It remains that way to this day.

And there were the posters, hundreds of them, everywhere, searching for information about the missing. That first day there was still some faint hope. Within a few more days it was obvious that the missing were now among the dead. The fires burned for months.

There was the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2002, when the entire parade stopped for a moment of silence and hundreds of thousands of people, in the parade and along Fifth Avenue, turned south to face the site and remember. In that same parade (and every year since) there was the shocking sight of 343 American flags, carried by the members of the Fire Department, reminding us all of how big a price they paid on that day.

I got involved in discussions on the future of downtown and my involvement in that discussion landed me in an article in the New York Times. The city recovered, mostly. The years have rolled on and new buildings are rising down there between Church and West Streets. The memorial is about to open at last and it may be that some of the discussions of which I was a part have resulted in a more dignified space than might have been otherwise.

Morena Saenz, 9/11 Broken Heart,
Mixed media, 2001
New York, New York Historical Society

I’ve recently done a search for art that might have resulted from September 11th. There has been some and I present a few pieces here. The first is an immediate response done by Morena Saenz in the nighttime hours of September 11-12, 2001, called “9/11 Broken Heart”. It is very typical of the immediate response art that appeared all over the city in the immediate aftermath of the event. It is emotional, somewhat makeshift, using whatever materials came to hand and almost always including a vision of the towers as they had been.

Then there is the triptych of paintings by Donna Levinstone called “Eternal Rest” from 2002. This is more removed, more refined, focusing on the eerie light effects of the enormous clouds of smoke that shrouded lower Manhattan that day. Clearly, some time has passed. Emotion has apparently been restrained visually although, once the context is known, it becomes apparent.
Donna Levinstone, Eternal Rest, 2002
Black and orange pastel on paper with deckled edges
New York, New York Historical Society

It is, perhaps, difficult to create art out of such a brutal and traumatic event. As stated on the website of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “September 11”, which opens this week at the museum’s Long Island City (Queens) branch, MoMA PS1, “The attacks of September 11, 2001 were among the most pictured disasters in history, yet they remain, a decade later, underrepresented in cultural discourse—particularly within the realm of contemporary art.”

Perhaps we are still too close, perhaps it is still unfathomable. Perhaps this kind of grief and shock can’t be processed visually. Maybe music is more the medium.


May all those who died on that beautiful sunny Tuesday ten years ago, rest in peace.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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