It’s been called the most witnessed tragedy in history. By some estimates, two billion people across the world watched the 9/11 attacks. But despite this, many art curators in Queens seem to be saying that even 10 years on and thousands of images later, people might not have really seen the event at all.
Peter Eleey, the curator of MoMA PS1’s show “September 11,” which will open on that date, talked about the glut of images that came from the attacks.
“I guess in part because they were so widely distributed and viewed, there remains something overly familiar ... that doesn’t allow us to make our own meaning,” he said.
In many ways, curators of other shows being mounted in Queens would seem to agree with Eleey, though PS1 has taken a markedly different approach than others when it comes to commemorating 9/11.
On display will be works that might seem barely related to the attacks — in fact, of the 70 artworks by 41 artists, many were made before the World Trade Center towers were felled.
Eleey believes the experience of 9/11 has changed our very perception of history, so that old images have acquired new meanings.
“There’s a range of ways that particularly large-scale, traumatic events change the way we experience the past,” Eleey said. When thinking about the show, he said he asked himself, “What could be gained from looking at this obliquely?”
At LaGuardia Community College, on the other hand, curator and art professor Kris Jefferson emphasized a more direct kind of connection to the event. Her show at LaGuardia features the work of 15 artists who all lived near or worked in the WTC.
Michael Richards, one of the artists in the show, had a studio in the WTC and died in the attacks.
Yet Jefferson still expressed a sentiment similar to Eleey’s when talking about how she came up with the exhibit. Many of her students were very young on Sept. 11, 2001, she explained, and in fact, many experienced it in other countries. She worried that “for them, it was almost like a video game.”
“It’s such a horrific event that people try to get a little bit of distance on it,” Jefferson said. She saw her “curatorial imperative” as being the need to give “an up-close and personal reaction to 9/11.”
One of the most poignant works in the exhibit is a video taken by Monika Bravo, who was working as an artist in the WTC at the same time as Richards. Bravo shot video from one of the towers just 12 hours before they were hit, filming, according to Jefferson, “what Michael would have been looking at while he was working on his sculpture” in the hours before he died.
It might be the very universality of the images the world saw of 9/11 that has curators and artists concerned with crafting a personal meaning from the tragedy. Another recurring preoccupation of many 9/11 works is the idea of preserving what might have been lost in the event and its aftermath, or what went missing.
Sometimes, this is evident in a very literal way. One artist featured in the LaGuardia show, for example, spent months taking photographs of all the missing persons fliers that appeared around the city, before they got “damaged and destroyed by nature,” Jefferson said. He wanted to make sure those people, already lost, weren’t “taken away again.”
Perhaps the most extreme version of that preservation instinct is the work by Michael Ragsdale, featured in the show “This is Personal” at the Queens College Art Center. Ragsdale, who was working as a videographer for C-SPAN, Columbia University and the Manhattan Institute when the 9/11 attacks occurred, responded to the tragedy by collecting every piece of paper he could find relating to 9/11 events around the city for some seven years.
Ragsdale not only gathered over 4,000 pieces of paper relating to post-9/11 events — fliers, postcards, “anything I could find on paper,” he said — he actually attended many of the events in question.
His “paper history,” as he calls it, fits into 40 three-ring binders, all of which will be on view at the exhibit. The Maspeth resident now works as a cab driver, and said he hopes people would go to the exhibit to “remember who got involved and decided to do something” after the attacks.
Curator Suzanna Simor called the items in the collection “the kind of stuff that historically are most difficult to find.”
“An archive of ephemera is the rarest archive,” Simor said. “It’s strong stuff, I can tell you.”