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Queens Chronicle

One On One with 9/11

Historic event, ongoing meanings

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Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2011 12:00 pm

It’s not a part of MoMA PS1’s “September 11” exhibit, but it feels like it could be.

Three video screens as big as walls in a large, darkened room project grainy images of a crowd at a hardcore punk show.

But instead of punk music, the viewer hears a melancholic, wordless soundtrack. And artist Jeremy Shaw has slowed down the footage, so what would look like a violent mass of young men bashing into each other at high speeds, becomes, instead, an operatic ballet, each individual’s movements elongated in time.

Punched fists are now fluid arm movements; flung legs, graceful, spinning kicks. In slow motion, the men are dancing in what looks like a state of ecstasy. And then it dawns on you: the ecstasy is really there, it’s just harder to see it in real time.

The piece is called “Best Minds” and it’s on the third floor of PS1. What does it have to do with 9/11?

You could ask the same thing of many artworks in the museum’s 9/11 exhibit proper. The show’s prevailing objective, according to curator Peter Eleey, was to look “obliquely” at the event.

For me, “Best Minds,” as much as any work at PS1 or at other 9/11-themed shows now open in Queens, evoked something about the attacks. Though “Best Minds” might point to the ecstatic underpinnings of violence, it also more simply shows us something we probably already sensed was there — that young men bash themselves around at punk shows to experience catharsis.

The piece’s beauty is how eloquently and succinctly it expresses this truth, letting us plainly see something that might otherwise have escaped us, maybe because in real time, things just happen too fast.

It made me think that after 10 short but also long years, maybe this, more than any moment that’s come before, is the time to really look at Sept. 11. Beyond finding one’s own understanding of what happened to this country and is still happening because of the attacks, after a decade of putting on brave faces, New Yorkers might also need a little catharsis, something these 9/11 exhibits seem to be striving to provide.

At “Witness — A Look Back to the Future,” mounted at LaGuardia Community College, the art on display is as much about the trauma the artists themselves experienced during 9/11, and may still be experiencing, as it is about the viewers’ own understanding of that day. All but one of the 15 artists featured lived near, or even in some cases worked in, the World Trade Center when it was attacked.

Presence, in this case, is tantamount. And while no one can take away from the elegiac beauty of the works the artists have created, many of them depicting the WTC towers on fire and mid-collapse, these personal but documentary-like renderings of the event had, at least for me, a distancing effect, maybe because the images are just too familiar.

Which is not to say the pieces aren’t moving. Take Monika Bravo’s “September 10, 2011: A Tribute to Michael Richards,” a five-minute video of footage she shot from her twin tower art studio the day before the attacks.

Bravo saw many of the same things a fellow WTC artist-in-residence, Michael Richards, might have seen, with one key exception: she left on Sept. 10, while it’s believed Richards, working late into the night, did not. Whether he was there all night, he was certainly there in the morning and died in the attacks.

Bravo’s video is a sped-up look at several views from the tower: cars dance across the Brooklyn Bridge, clouds blow over the Statue of Liberty. This is a portrait of the city pre-catastrophe.

˝hen a thunderstorm arrives, streaking rain against the glass Bravo filmed through, it’s impossible not to think of tears. There’s also something poignant in the detail: as dramatic as the weather was that night, it’s the innocuous blue skies of the next day that are now etched in history.

The video ends with the words, “Michael, wherever you are, this one is for you,” underscoring how this work — like many at LGCC — is a personal, almost private tribute.

These are scenes the artists actually witnessed, from Jean Holabird’s watercolors capturing the aftermath of the attacks, which took place just two blocks from her apartment, to Todd Stone’s images of the towers, which he painted from his nearby studio as they collapsed, incorporating the dust that gradually amassed around him.

Unlike these works, however, the power of many of the pieces at PS1’s “September 11” exhibit is precisely that they don’t depict what was witnessed. The art there, instead, is as much about the viewer as the artist or scene on display.

One example: Rosemarie Trockel’s untitled work from 1986. A red, white and blue crocheted rectangle hangs on the wall, the colors woven together. The swatch of fabric is unfinished or perhaps, unraveling — the empty crochet loops lining its bottom edge lead to three individual threads of red, white and blue that fall into three piles of yarn at the floor.

This piece might make you think of 9/11, or it might not. If it does, it’s because of a thought or feeling you come to on your own terms, as you stand in front of it.

Many of the other PS1 works similarly allow viewers to participate in making meaning, both aiding and mirroring this process when it comes to the attacks themselves.

The time for understanding what happened is by no means over, as Michael Ragsdale would probably tell you. For seven years, Ragsdale collected paper from every event he could attend that related to 9/11 in some way.

On view at Queens College, his collection of some 4,000 fliers, posters and other “paper ephemera” lives in 40 three-ring binders, with a few of Ragsdale’s selected highlights placed on the wall of a light-filled rotunda at the Rosenthal Library.

“There’s a story behind every piece,” Ragsdale said. A flier noting the partial reopening of the Statue of Liberty, on Aug. 3, 2004, for example, is a reminder of just how long it was closed for. A piece of paper from a West Point graduation ceremony prompts Ragsdale to recall that President George Bush’s June 2002 speech there was the first time Bush used the term “preemptive action.”

Names like Cindy Sheehan, Judith Miller and Lynne Stewart populate these notices, at events calling for everything from peace to war to reconciliation to remembrance. Something like a new lexicon emerges — Guantanamo, rendition, WMD — a post- 9/11 vocabulary.

One hopes future historians will put Ragsdale’s collection, his personal act of bearing witness, to public use.

For now, 10 years on, we can only thank Ragsdale and the artists around the city who have gathered these materials, documented the day and maybe most importantly, challenged us to look, and look again. Maybe we’ll find something, eloquent and succinct, that we knew was there but might otherwise have escaped us.

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