MoMA PS1’s September 11

by Jimmy Lepore Hagan, November 2011

Any student of astronomy will remember how they learned to look through a telescope. When attempting to see a faint celestial body, the observer must slightly avert their gaze. Only then, and for an instant, can they see the objects clearly. So, it’s reasonable to assume that curator Peter Eleey channeled Galileo for the inspiration for MoMA PS1’s ambiguous September 11 exhibition. “We often turn [to art] to help make sense of trauma,” Eleey states in the central wall text. “At such times, we may find resonance in culture created under different circumstances, which can transcend the specificities of its epoch, form, or content to uncannily address the present.” By looking away from the visual calamity of the pictured event itself, we can see what 9/11 really means.

As a fall art mega-event, September 11 asserted the primacy of the curator—not the artist—in organizing and explaining the impact of terrorism on our shared psyche. As a response to a moment of national mourning, it exacted a momentary catharsis. However, as an attempt to “find resonance,” it also struggled to be heard.

The show counterbalances the overload of 9/11-inspired art by selecting works by artists that did not intend to address the tragedy. The majority were made before the attacks—some were created fifty years prior—and only one piece in the entire exhibition directly responds (an Ellsworth Kelly proposal for Ground Zero) to the event. Naturally, September 11 entices the viewer to explain how each anachronistic object relates to 9/11. According to Eleey, our ability to make such connections should demonstrate how our visual interpretation of the world has changed.

Throughout the show, PS1’s curatorial decisions are clever, tasteful and astute. Challenging  any question of intentionality, the exhibition extracts the works of Barbara Kruger, Alex Katz and Yoko Ono (among a cast of others) from their original context and entices them to speak to 9/11. However savvy that may be, the reiteration of the same move truly prevents September 11 from digging deeper.

In brief, the exhibition operates like a tidy puzzle—offering small rewards for the correct answers that hang on the wall like solutions to problems in the back of a math book. In this way, PS1 leads the viewer by the hand across a torrid emotional landscape of devastation and memory, provoking and protecting them through a neatly manicured emotional maze.

Sometimes the game is effective and powerful—Jean Cohen’s uncanny Little Flags being the prime example. The film depicts a ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan to celebrate the end of the first Gulf War. As the officially sanctioned collective celebration of both world wars and a modern update of the Roman triumph, the ticker-tape parade has become the truest expression of American military victory. In 1945, the youth and vitality of the newly crowned superpower found a striking visual manifestation in the black and white images of sailors kissing nurses in the streets amid torrents of confetti. However, watching a man in Cohen’s video stumble slowly through a cascade of thin white paper, one might wonder whether Lower Manhattan would ever be able to stage another ticker-tape parade. Certainly, it would be impossible to avoid the uncomfortable visual parallels with the floating debris from the collapsed towers.

In September 11’s best moments, the wall texts are helpful and appreciated. On one occasion, the written supplement for a Thomas Demand photograph, Detail XI, explains the artist’s process, detailing how Demand used paper to reconstruct a fantastical image of the fax machine that forged documents proving the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Noting the “double artifice” inherent in the work, the wall text goes on to note how the work “remind[s] us how much of what we perceive is shaped by what we desire.” Here, viewers are encouraged to understand “double artifice” as a metaphor for their own experience of the entire exhibit.

Yet at times, the connections seemed trite. In one instance, Eleey’s wall text haphazardly relates 9/11 to a 1960s Christo drawing because the drawing depicts Lower Manhattan and was made the same year Minoru Yamasaki unveiled his WTC designs. Additionally, the text for the film City Slivers by Gordon Matta-Clark takes on a conspiratorial tone by suggesting the viewer interpret Matta-Clark’s video slicing and entropic obsessions as somehow prophetic.

Surely, the show reflects an exciting direction for curation: a phenomenon where the exhibition itself becomes the art object and the curator’s decisions transform into brushstrokes. Yet while Eleey’s approach is innovative, it lacks real edge. By compiling a show full of work that doesn’t respond to 9/11, PS1 seems to have avoided the complications of addressing the event as well. Coming from one of the most respected contemporary art institutions in America, such a decision understates the gigantic geo-political and economic ramifications of 9/11. After all, the fallout from that day goes beyond our visual expectations. The attacks and subsequent American response physically reshaped the topography of New York, Kabul and Baghdad. September 11 could have coalesced an array of direct responses around a strong observation about how the world itself has changed. Instead, it turned the other way. Perhaps if Peter Eleey and MoMA PS1 had been willing to look at 9/11 directly, then September 11 might not be lost in our peripheral vision.

September 11
11 September 2011—9 January 2012
MoMA PS1, New York