By LINDA KRESTANOVA
Officials of the 9/11 Memorial Museum on Thursday unveiled plans to explore the confluence of art and tragedy.
This confluence is embodied by the museum’s inaugural special exhibition, a collection of 13 New York-based artists’ reactions to the tragedy at the World Trade Center, which will open to the public on September 12. The use of art produced by men and women on whom the horrors of the 9/11 attacks had a direct impact marks a departure from the prevalent literal, artefactual tone of the museum’s usual displays. It also gives the exhibition, titled Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11, a captivating and slightly haunting character.
The 13 art pieces, which were not newly commissioned for the exhibition, will include Blue Man Group’s Exhibit 13, a four-minute video showing fluttering paper scraps, which the wind had carried to the group’s rented space in Red Hook on the day of, and the days following, the attacks; Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman, a bronze sculpture; Tobi Kahn’s M’AHL, a wooden piece composed of 12 parts; Manju Shandler’s Gesture, an almost 3,000-piece painting installation with one painting representing each person who died on 9/11; and Michael Mulhern’s Ash Road 14-45th and Ash Road 2-45th, artwork made with oil and aluminum paint that incorporates ash from the site.
Each artist was in New York during the attacks. While some watched the destruction from their rooftops as their properties became gradually covered in dust, others lost a friend or family member. For the three members of Blue Man Group, Exhibit 13 was a way of honoring the people that the burnt paper scraps represented.
“We didn’t make this to be on display,” Phil Stanton, a member of Blue Man Group, said. “We played it at the end of some shows for a while mainly because it felt like it was needed.”
Tobi Kahn, a conceptual artist, used white acrylic paint in his 12-part M’AHL piece because in many faiths, white represents holiness. Kahn believes art can be healing and his aim was to make something that would evoke a feeling of togetherness. He eventually sold or gave away each component of the artwork, yet only after including a guarantee of this togetherness in each contract. “Every time a museum wants the pieces together,” Kahn said when explaining the terms, “you have to promise to loan them back.”
Opened to the public since 2014, the museum has welcomed nearly 7 million visitors, including Pope Francis and dozens of heads of state. Alice M. Greenwald, the museum’s director, said that after 15 years of commemorating the nearly 3,000 people that lost their lives during the tragedy, people have begun to show interest in a greater variety in the presentation of 9/11’s impact.
After the overwhelmingly positive response to Spencer Finch’s Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, a poignant piece composed of hand-painted squares representing all of the people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the special exhibition gallery began taking shape. While the museum displays primarily historical pieces, such as the remnants of a firetruck and firemen’s gear, the addition of highly expressive artwork was called a more “intimate and spare space for reflection and contemplation” by Greenwald.
The exhibition also represents an attempt at remaining relevant, pertaining not only to the museum and its profit – new exhibitions mean people coming for a second visit – but also to the relevance of keeping a powerful and vital memory alive.
“9/11 was an international event. People from more than 90 nations lost their lives,” said Joe Daniels, the 9/11 Memorial President. He compared the attack to the more recent terrorist and other attacks in France and within the United States and highlighted the limitless compassion that people across the world have shown. This, too, is what the museum strives to remind us of: “When these things happen, we can be there for one-another.”
While the museum’s fundamental aim is, and continues to be, remembering an experience that is difficult to forget, its slight reshaping has also been influenced by those that have no memories of the experience because they had not yet been born. In 2016, there are young people in high school for whom 9/11 is a part of learned history, not of a distant personal past. The museum will be holding a “webinar” on Sept. 12 and 13 to teach details of Sept. 11 to over 10,000 registered students in high schools across the country.
Change has always been part of the plan, according to Daniels.
“For a museum, it is important to have the ability to connect,” he explained. “Having a space that allows us to stay topical and dynamic was always part of the plan.”
Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11 will be open to families of the victims and first responders on Sept. 11, along with the entirety of the museum. As has been the core of the commemoration during the past anniversaries, families will gather this Sunday as the name of each victim is read, and the life of each victim is remembered.