Modern Ruins

Don't look back: A contribution to "Here Is New York" by Richard Rutkowski.Photo: Richard Rutkowski

The destruction of the World Trade Center arouses buried, primeval feelings: Death raining from the sky is one of the eternal nightmares of humanity. So are plagues. It doesn’t matter that the weapons of the moment are new; the dread is ancient. Traditional cultures met these deep-seated fears with shrines, relics, sacrifices, talismans. And strangely enough, during this autumn of mourning, so has the city famous for its modern outlook. In its response to the age-old terrors, New York has become, momentarily, a premodern city.

Consider the shrines raised outside the firehouses of the city. They don’t look like the New York we know. They are primitive and beautiful, at once messy and scattered, like street-corner shrines in an Indian city. Offerings are piled up against the walls. Colors are intense, almost candied. We see row upon row of variously sized and colored candles; decaying flowers from Korean delis; flags pointing askew; private messages publicly scrawled on different kinds of paper. Amid the profusion are photographs of lost comrades, often reverentially positioned, much as graves in certain parts of the world contain a framed photograph of the dead. No solitary artist assembled these shrines: They represent a spontaneous public expression of grief. But a kind of art inhabits them, one much older than our kind of art, which usually emphasizes the individual artist.

In most premodern cultures, it would have seemed absurd to focus upon any particular artist or, indeed, upon “art” itself. Art was not singled out in that way. Art was inextricably part of some larger endeavor – placating the demonic, illuminating paradise, celebrating power. Similarly, in a stunned New York, making images about the disaster does not yet serve individual ambition or the private sensibilities of an artist. That would seem too small, a diminishing of existential scale. So far, the famous artist named Anonymous has made most of the important work about September 11. In the first weeks after the attack, for example, the city filled with a ghostly population – snapshots of the dead and missing. Their faces stared out from the subway girders, from lampposts, from bulletin boards. (Time and weather slowly peeled them away.) They seemed incantatory and half alive, steeped in the crime and its aftermath. They gave new meaning to the phrase most wanted.

If ancient cultures used poetry and oral traditions to commemorate great events, we use a somewhat different means. Our society cannot claim reality without photographs; some think photographic illusion is our reality. On September 11, many people instinctively reached for their cameras, placing the camera between themselves and the event. We know that day principally through video of the second plane punching into the South Tower; it has cut a mark into the common memory, as has the image of the two wounded towers bleeding smoke before they collapsed. But no single image can contain September 11. It was too large and chaotic a time, with too many aspects. In SoHo, four people close to the photography world – Gilles Peress, Alice Rose George, Michael Shulan, and Charles Traub – recognized early on that the public was generating thousands of images about the massacre. Instead of selecting a “show” about the event or concentrating upon the work of well-known photographers, they let the show come to them, in the form of thousands of donated photographs.

Here Is New York is a storefront at 116 Prince Street where people come to make offerings of photographs. According to George, about half the pictures come from amateurs. No particular image is given pride of place. The pictures are scanned, placed in computers, and digitally printed. Many are loosely hung on the walls or flutter like prayer flags on lines strung across the room. Every day, crowds line up around the block – like pilgrims visiting relics – waiting patiently to see the images. You can buy any picture for $25, with the proceeds going to help the victims. (Thousands are being sold.) The informal, somewhat disorderly air of the storefront seems just right for this time, when feelings remain in flux. The pictures convey a jumble of impressions of the disaster. You can see the explosion, the collapsing towers, the typhoon of dust, the disbelieving faces, the erupting grief of relatives, the skeletal remains of one tower, the exhausted workers, the New Yorkers watching from Village rooftops, the eerie lights of the first night at ground zero – and on and on and on. The show is a compilation, not a selection. Evidence alone must first be honored.

Among the chaos of photographs is a stark amateur video of the two smoking towers. Visitors spend long minutes waiting to see the towers fall once again – the central event that provoked the array of responses on the walls around them. They seem to visit the show not to relive the day but to begin assembling the scattered pieces of memory. Some of the actual photographs are significant art, such as Richard Rutkowski’s picture of a woman crossing a bridge after the attack. Others are more like documents. The distinction is not important. In fact, it’s fitting that both the extraordinary and the mundane receive their due and democratically mix on the walls, for that blend of sensations was part of September 11. Each photograph is, metaphorically, an honored piece taken from the rubble of experience. Together, their gathering creates a powerful sense of the commonalty.

Many modern artists are junkyard dogs, wisely turning the detritus of our civilization into something of value. The retrospective Tom Friedman at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (which was organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art) presents the work of a particularly engaging member of the species. Children should enjoy Friedman’s exhibit, because he does things that make people say, He actually did that? For example, Friedman has carved his face into a single aspirin tablet. He has made a monochromatic abstract painting from toothpaste (the painting still smells of mint). He has transformed an entire pencil into a beautiful, winding shaving. There is a daddy longlegs in the museum – it was, of course, made by Friedman. There is also an empty pedestal: Friedman cursed the space above it. (That space is the “art object.”) It is possible to talk at length – until tears of boredom form – about Friedman’s emphasis upon ephemera, his attack upon the formal, his subversion of the monumental. I prefer the slight smile he brings.

Here Is New York
At 116 Prince Street.
Tom Friedman
At the New Museum of Contemporary Art; through 2/3/02.

Modern Ruins