Just over a month ago, most of us were at some stage of 9/11 anniversary over-exposure. Photos and videos still vivid in our minds a decade later were retransmitted, new ones were premiered, the events of that day were recounted, the ensuing ten years reflected upon, but little attention was paid to the ways in which that disaster's unprecedented photographic and televisual ubiquity fundamentally changed the way we see. This point is made self-evident repeatedly in September 11, a powerful exhibition curated by Peter Eleey at MoMA PS1 (through January 9). Most of the works on view predate the attacks, but their ability to evoke the events of that day demonstrates a widespread and retroactive re-calibration of our relationship with visual culture.
At times the selected pieces seem deployed in an increasingly abstract experiment to see how easily something can evoke the Twin Towers or some news imagery of that day, whether it's the pair of faintly reflected vertical shapes in Alex Katz's watery painting "10:00 AM" (1994), or the mangled steel of John Chamberlain's totemic sculpture "King King Minor" (1982). This can seem a little facile at times, as with Sarah Charlesworth's 1980 photo of a woman falling from a hotel in Madrid, which if not for its title would surely pass for a picture of a World Trade Center jumper. Jem Cohen's short film "Little Flags" (1991-2000) seems more complexly prophetic, showing Lower Manhattan streets littered with paper after a 1991 parade for soldiers returning from the first Gulf War.
The exhibition's most engaging pieces are less easily rendered backwards-compatible with 9/11 imagery. Harun Farocki's video of visitors touching memorials and statues at historical and religious sites around the world, "Transmission" (2007), invokes a different kind of sense memory in footage of hundreds of hands passing over marble, bronze and stone. Similarly, Bruce Conner's REPORT (1963-67) relies on live radio broadcasts of John F. Kennedy's assassination and its immediate aftermath rather than the familiar Zapruder film, drawing a contrast between that national tragedy's primary existence as an audio event and 9/11's inescapable visualization. These works and others that resonate with that day's events more obliquely are the exhibition's most moving, while obviously topical pieces like Jeremy Deller's scale replica of George Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner are instantly recognized and forgotten. (Or would be if not cleverly juxtaposed with Yoko Ono and John Lennon's "War Is Over (if you want it)" (ca. 1970).)
September 11 explores our relationship to one specific day's events while underlining its ability to transform pre-existing sights and sounds. It examines nothing less than the constantly shifting field of collective human perception. As such, its great depth, complexity and sensitivity vastly outstrip any perceived shortsightedness.
Seeing Art Differently After 9/11
The exhibition September 11 at MoMA PS1 investigates how that day's events literally changed our senses.