Reflecting Reality

Artists have responded to Sept. 11 with poignant works. But can these compare to the catastrophe that unfolded before our eyes?

September 04, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the year since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there has been an outpouring of images expressing the nation's shock and grief over the tragedy.

In works ranging from photographs, paintings, drawings and sculptures to performances, installations and dedicated Web sites, artists and ordinary people alike have mobilized their creative energies to memorialize the victims and help heal the nation's wounds.

But with the attacks still fresh in the public's mind, can these efforts truly live up to the experience? What can art tell us about the events of Sept. 11 that we don't already know? What can it make us feel that we haven't already felt?

"One of the highest functions of the art is to trigger emotion," said Michael Shulan, one of the four organizers of Here is New York, a compilation of some 2,000 images of Sept. 11 taken by amateur and professional photographers that opens Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

"The more you look at the images on TV, the less sense events seem to have," Shulan said. "So it was important to us that everyone who had images of Sept. 11 be allowed to exhibit them. It was only by showing photos by as many people as possible that we could begin to give a sense that this was an event which had struck everyone equally and that had left everyone equally horrified."

The first artworks, which appeared within days of the attacks, were impromptu memorials made out of photographs, handwritten notes, flowers and other small personal items. They were hastily pinned to lampposts and walls on the streets of Lower Manhattan by grief-stricken relatives desperately trying to locate missing loved ones among the victims. The makeshift shrines were accompanied by sidewalk drawings and written messages scrawled in public spaces around the city.

These remembrances were mostly the work not of professional artists but of ordinary people attempting to cope with the enormity and suddenness of their loss. They were spontaneous acts expressing a collective grief. Many honored the hundreds of emergency workers - police officers, firefighters and paramedics - who had lost their lives in the first response to the crisis.

In the following months, more formal works appeared: Exhibitions of photographs were made into books and rushed into print or online; an outdoor light show re-created the fallen twin towers on the Manhattan skyline; and a project was organized over the Internet to collect fabric for a quilt in honor of the victims.

The New York State Art Teachers' Association organized a Sept. 11 commemorative exhibit of student artwork, and Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, sponsored an online exhibition of 2000 works created by New York-area students through its Art & Writing Awards program.

This month, both the International Center of Photography in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington will mount major shows dedicated to Sept. 11.

The ICP exhibit, which opens Sept. 13, presents the work of four photographers who have documented the aftermath of the attacks in the United States and in Afghanistan. The Corcoran show, opening Saturday, brings to Washington a huge traveling show of photographs organized in New York in the days after the attack and includes the work of amateur and professional photographers in order to display the widest possible variety of pictures from the widest variety of sources.

In Maryland, artist Barbara Marcus founded an extensive portrait project at Harford Community College commemorating the rescue workers killed in the attack and its aftermath. The Face of Courage presents dozens of portraits of firefighters, police and emergency personnel (eventually the project will comprise 60 works by 35 artists) painted from photographs submitted by the victims' families to artists around the country who volunteered their time. The exhibit opened last week.

Closer to home, the Beveled Edge's forthcoming group show, Life, Loss, Hope, includes paintings of Muslim women by Janet Mishner and photos of war's aftermath by Tilghman Pitts which reflect on Sept. 11. The show opens tomorrow.

It's probably safe to say that all of these shows will touch a chord with the public. Everyone was affected by the events of Sept. 11, and everyone seeing these shows will be moved according to their personal memories of the tragedy. We have a built-in predisposition to be interested in this subject.

On the other hand, Sept. 11 had such a tremendous impact on the country that it's hard to see how any artwork can live up to the awe of seeing live television footage of the two airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, or the stupefying sense of disbelief at watching the twin towers collapse.

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