Where Art Fears to Tread

Photographer Carla Shapiro hand copied nearly 2,500 obituaries from the "New York Times" in honor of those who died in 9/11, a labor-intensive process which took five months to complete. The resulting photographs, "Obituaries to Prayer Flags," will be on view in four locations in New York this month. (Photo © Carla Shapiro)

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there is no shortage of news stories, official ceremonies, and tributes. But this weekend I’ve been contemplating how the arts community fits into all of this speechifying and memorializing. What is the artistic legacy of 9/11 now that it is a decade behind us?

September 11th is tricky creative territory. How can any artist convey the horror of that day without over-simplifying it or reducing it to some narcissistic, naval-gazing exercise?

It’s true that time has passed, but perhaps not enough time. Reactions to 9/11-themed fiction, art, music, and memorials remain passionate, emotional, and highly personal. We cannot help but view such works through the lens of our own experience, cannot help but compare art to memory. Art that dares to address the events of September 11th is often found lacking by comparison, but just as often it cuts too close to our recollections of that day, threatening to unearth some forgotten pain or fear. We cannot tolerate 9/11 art that feels shallow or untrue, but we are equally leery of art that is too faithful to reality. At one end of the spectrum lies criticisms of “self-indulgence” and “sentimentality,” and at the other, “crassness” and “insensitivity.”

We cannot tolerate 9/11 art that feels shallow or untrue, but we are equally leery of art that is too faithful to reality. (Eric Fischl's "Tumbling Woman" before it was removed from Rockefeller Center)

The fervent response to Eric Fischl’s bronze nude called “Tumbling Woman” — a piece in the tradition of Rodin’s “Martyr” and Aristide Maillol’s “The River” — is an excellent case in point. Fischl’s larger-than-life sculpture, which was dedicated to 9/11 victims, was barely installed at Rockefeller Center in 2009 when the complaints began pouring in. Rockefeller Center responded by putting curtains around the statue, and then removed the sculpture altogether. The lifespan of Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman” was a mere week.

As the Star-Ledger observes, images of the attacks of the World Trade Center are noticeably absent in the September 11th-themed gallery and museum shows opening this month, such as the upcoming exhibit “September 11” at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS 1 annex in Queens. Out of the 70 images made by 41 artists, not one shows the burning towers burning or a plane flying into the World Trade Center. Curators remain convinced that these images are too raw and disturbing for most viewers.

	 Mary Lucier/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art  Mary Lucier's video installation of a sunrise over north Brooklyn in 1975, one of the works to be in MoMA PS1's "September 11." Most of the art in the show was made before the attacks.

Mary Lucier's video installation of a sunrise over north Brooklyn in 1975 is one of the works in the MoMA PS1 show "September 11." Most of the art in the show was made before 9/11. (Image courtesy Mary Lucier and The San Francisco Museum of Art)

In the months following September 11th, writers like Don DeLillo and Taylor Branch predicted that the event would change our actions for years to come and would finally put an end to our culture’s pervasive cynicism. But as Michiko Kakutani argues in her recent New York Times article, “the New Normal…
[is] very much like the Old Normal, at least in terms of the country’s arts and entertainment.” Here are Kakutani’s thoughts on post-9/11 culture:


Ten years later, it is even clearer that 9/11 has not provoked a seismic change in the arts. While there were shifts in the broader culture — like an increasingly toxic polarization in our politics, and an alarming impulse to privilege belief over facts — such developments have had less to do with 9/11 than with the ballooning of partisanship during the Bush and Obama administrations, and with unrelated forces like technology,…which magnified the forces of democratization, relativism and subjectivity.

Economic worries — sparked by 9/11 and amplified by the 2008 Wall Street meltdown — accelerated trends already in place, including the Internet’s undermining of old business models in music and publishing. Warier than ever of taking risks, Hollywood looked even harder for special-effects extravaganzas that could readily find a global audience, and Broadway doubled down on shows starring big-name celebrities that could guarantee advance box office.

In response to 9/11, the artistic community quickly mobilized. Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff and Robert De Niro put together the Tribeca Film Festival (which had its 10th anniversary this spring) to help revitalize a ravaged Lower Manhattan. And musicians including Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, the Who and Jay-Z did a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden.

There was also an outpouring of art, like Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” and Anne Nelson’s earnest play “The Guys.” Such works served useful purposes — cathartic commemoration, therapeutic expression, public rallying — but in retrospect, many of them now feel sentimental or heavy-handed…

Some eloquent or daring works of art about 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually did emerge — most notably, Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing film The Hurt Locker, about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq; Gregory Burke’s haunting play “Black Watch,” based on interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq with a Scottish regiment; Amy Waldman’s novel The Submission, which explored the fallout of 9/11 on American attitudes toward Muslims; Donald Margulies’s play “Time Stands Still,” about the Iraq war’s effects on two journalists and their relationship; and Eric Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman,” a bronze sculpture commemorating those who fell or jumped to their deaths from the twin towers…

Compelling as such works are, however, none were really game-changing. None possess the vaulting ambition of, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, or the sweep of Mr. DeLillo’s Underworld, which captured the entire cold war era. Instead, these 9/11 works feel like blips on the cultural landscape — they neither represent a new paradigm nor suggest that the attacks were a cultural watershed. Perhaps this is because 9/11 did not really change daily life for much of the country. Perhaps it’s because our A.D.D. nation — after the assassinations of J.F.K., R.F.K. and M.L.K. in the ’60s, and decades of violence on 24-hour news — has become increasingly inured to shock.

We are a culture of contradictions. We have no trouble watching the character Jack Bauer torture terrorists on the television show 24, but we cannot bear the brutal punch of images and art work that remind of us that real terrorism exists. Even Eric Fischl’s bronze sculpture of a falling woman proved too visceral for many viewers.

There is a reason that escapist books and films like Harry Potter, Avatar, and The Lord of the Rings have flourished over the past decade. They exorcise our impulse for revenge and our desire to see “good” triumphing over “evil.” The plots of these stories are familiar, but the fantasy settings allow us to avoid the discomfort of reality.

9-11 anniversary

"Tribute in Light" is arguably the most powerful artwork to emerge from 9/11 (Photo by Francisco Diez)

So how is an artist to navigate this hypersensitive, contradictory climate?

Here are several examples of talented artists who are responding to the anniversary of 9/11 in their own unique way.


Music After Marathon Concert, Joyce SoHo

Composers Daniel Felsenfeld and Eleonor Sandresky have set out to mark the anniversary of September 11th with a marathon concert intentionally lacking in sanctimony, speeches, and memorializing. Music After, is dedicated to composers who were living in downtown Manhattan on 9/11. The concert, which takes place at Joyce SoHo, 155 Mercer Street, Manhattan, will begin at 8:46 a.m. on September 11th and finish after midnight. The program will include works of Philip Glass, Julia Wolfe, David Del Tredici, Laurie Anderson, Rosanne Cash, David Lang, Meredith Monk, Judd Greenstein, Michael Gordon, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Sxip Shirey, Elliott Carter, and Steve Reich, as well as music by the presenters.

Music After Marathon Concert for 9/11

Composers Eleanor Sandresky (Photo by Robin Holland) and Danny Felsenfeld (Photo by Randy Nordschow)

On September 11, 2001, Danny was a few blocks from the World Trade Center, looking after the apartment of Eleonor Sandresky, who was on tour with the Philip Glass Ensemble in Brazil. Both of them—like all of the composers featured—were forever changed. It was for this reason that they decided to produce this marathon event, a gift to (and from) the city.

As Danny and Eleanor explain on the Music After fundraising site, the concert “will be a free, casual, un-sanctimonious place where the music community en masse, and anyone else who wants to join us, can go—to meet, to think, to listen. The day will be about music – speech-making and memorializing will happen elsewhere and by others…It is our hope that it will give everyone involved–the composers and songwriters whose work we will present; the astonishing musicians who will perform; and those who come to listen–a place to be on that complex day, an option to be part of a group but not part of a commemoration or an austere set of remembrances. Just a cross-section of creative musicians, doing what they do (still), a day that is not about the tragedy but about the music.”

Eleanor and Danny are in the final week of their campaign to raise $15,000 to cover the costs of performers, technical and support staff, as well as the rental of the sound system, piano, and other necessities. Joyce SoHo has generously donated the space, and Vision Into Art is donating their services as a fiscal sponsor. All the performers are playing for a modest honorarium of $200, far below their normal fees.

Music critic Alex Ross recently gave the concert a plug on his blog, The Rest is Noise: “Like so many New Yorkers, I have overpowering memories of that day, yet I’ve grown weary of ‘official’ commemorative events, which can’t avoid having at least a trace of politics attached…Danny’s idea of a space dedicated purely to local new music appeals to me strongly, and I hope that fund-raising proceeds apace.”

To learn more about the free Music After marathon concert or to make a donation, you can click here.


Obituaries to Prayer Flags by Photographer Carla Shapiro

"Obituaries to Prayer Flags" in winter (Photo © Carla Shapiro)

Carla Shapiro is a Chichester-based visual artist who has been working in photography for over 25 years, creating bodies of work about women, aging, beauty and decay. In the months following September 11, 2001, Shapiro hand copied nearly 2,500 obituaries from the New York Times in honor of those who perished. Writing on sheets of vellum, a labor-intensive process which demanded that she write for four hours a day and which took her five months to complete, the sheets were hung on clotheslines across a stream in Shapiro’s back yard and exposed to the elements for the period of one year.

Speaking of her process, Shapiro said, “I photographed these obituaries – in early light, in darkness, in rain, as the leaves fell, and as it snowed. They were photographed in stillness. They were photographed when it was hot and when it was cold, as they moved and as they froze. They were photographed with this rebirth of spring.”

Her project “Obituaries to Prayer Flags” combines the evocative moments of transformation and healing. As the obituaries began to deteriorate and weather, they began to resemble Tibetan prayer flags — visual reminders of peace and prayer as opposed to symbols of death.

A photo from "Obituaries to Prayer Flags" (Photo © Carla Shapiro)

There will be four opportunities to view Shapiro’s photographs in Manhattan, Woodstock, and Brooklyn during the coming weeks:

Center for Photography at Woodstock
September 10 – October 8
Opening Reception: Saturday, September 10, 5-7pm
59 Tinker Street, Woodstock NY 12498

Judson Church
showing with SB Woods
September 11 – October 8
Opening reception: Sunday, September 11, 12:30 – 3pm
55 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012
Gallery Open: Friday-Sunday, 11-5

Pace University, Fingesten Gallery
September 6 – October 4
Opening reception: Tuesday, September 13, 5-7pm
1 Pace Plaza, 
 New York, NY 10038

Freddy’s Art Gallery and Bar
September 9th – October 17th
Opening reception: Sunday, September 11th, 7-9
627 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY


The Release of Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11

Composer Steve Reich will release his new album "WTC 9/11" this month.

If there is one artist capable of shaping the sounds and voices of September 11th into a memorable and moving piece of music, it is minimalist composer Steve Reich. The events of 9/11 had “a very personal, direct effect,” the 74-year-old, Pulitzer Prize winner recently told the BBC.

“On 11 September I was in Vermont, 300 miles from our apartment in New York City,”

“We got a call from my son. He said, ‘I think they bombed the World Trade Center again.’

“We turned on the TV and saw the second plane hit, which was terrifying. My son was there with his daughter and his wife, four blocks away.

“I told him, ‘Don’t hang up, close all the windows and stay home until our next door neighbour comes back and gets you out of the city.'”

“It was something that really impacted on my life.”

Reich has waited all of these years to create “WTC 9/11,” a composition that weaves strings with the voices of air traffic controllers, New York City firefighters, and the women who fulfilled the Jewish obligation of shmira, or sitting with the victims’ remains before burial. “This is not my fantasy or personal expression,” Reich explained to the BBC. “I deal with 9/11 through the people who were the participants.”

Nonesuch Records chose to pull the cover for Reich's new record after intense criticism.

Nonesuch Records recently created an uproar when they unveiled the cover art for WTC 9/11, which showed the second, hijacked plane moments before it strikes the World Trade Center. Criticism of the cover quickly appeared on the “comments” section of the Nonesuch website. New York composer Phil Kline called it “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen.” Craig Zeichner called the art-direction “vile,” “ham-fisted,” and “exploitative.”

But in his thoughtful essay on the controvery for Slate, Seth Colter Walls argues that the album cover is problematic not because it’s insensitive, but because it “misrepresents the music.” Walls, who attended the premiere of Reich’s “WTC 9/11” at Carnegie Hall, has nothing but praise for the music itself:

While the piece is chilling in its evocation of the sounds of 9/11—among the recorded voices are those of 9/11 first responders—it is ultimately about much more than just the horror of the attacks themselves. I left Carnegie thinking I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a professionally recorded version…

I don’t think it’s necessary for us to replay the familiar debates about the use of 9/11 imagery in the public sphere. This is the wrong cover art because it misrepresents the music.

WTC 9/11 opens with the familiar sound of a phone that’s been left off the hook, a repeated F note which is ominously matched, in the same rhythm, by the members of the Kronos Quartet. The opening section also features digitally manipulated samples of real-life chatter from NORAD trackers and NYPD first-responders. This is hair-raising material.

But the entire piece, which is all of 15 minutes long, spends less than one-third of its running time playing off these sounds from the day itself. The majority of “WTC 9/11” focuses instead on dealing with the tragedy after the fact. The long second movement is titled “2010,” and contains taped testimonies from people who sound as though they are thinking as much about remembrance as about those first frenetic pulses of fear and panic. The process of Jewish mourning, known as Shmira, is evoked in the third movement, during which another speaker admits: “The world to come?/ I don’t really know what that means.” At the very end of the piece, the disconnected phone reappears, with a voice adding: “And there’s the world right here.”

The new album cover for Reich's "WTC 9/11"

In the end, the controversy over the album art doesn’t matter nearly as much as the music. Early reviews of “WTC 9/11” have been positive. For a limited time, NPR is allowing listeners to stream the entirety of WTC 9/11 on their website as part of their First Listen series.

Reich’s new album will not be available until September 20th, but you can receive access to the title piece “WTC 9/11″performed by the Kronos Quartet on September 6th if you pre-order the record. If you’d like to learn more, you can listen to Reich’s interview with The Guardian in which he discusses “WTC 9/11” and the album-cover controversy.


A Tribute in Light

Perhaps no other  memorial has been as stunning and effective as the Tribute in Light, which was first unveiled in March of 2002. The idea is a simple one: two beacons of piercing blue, light penetrating the sky at the site where the World Trade Center once stood. “Tribute in Light” was originally produced by John Bennett and Gustavo Bonevardi of PROUN Space Studio, artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda, architect Richard Nash Gould, and lighting designer Paul Marantz, in association with Creative Time and the Municipal Art Society. It is arguably the most compelling public artwork to emerge from 9/11.

9-11 light memorial

"Tribute in Light" (Photo by V. Kalsi via Flickr Commons)

The phantom towers are created by 88 powerful searchlights running on generators powered by biodiesel. The lights are made by the Italian company Real Space Cannon, which sends technicians to adjust and prepare the lights each September.

As the Associated Press and NPR reported last week, the hardest part of creating the tribute “is getting the light from each 7,000-watt bulb aimed straight at the sky. Each beam must be focused and leveled by hand, one at a time. If any one of them is off by a fraction of a degree, the effect is ruined. Since the towering beams can’t be seen well from up close, spotters call in adjustments from viewing spots in Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey and uptown Manhattan during a testing stage that lasts several days…The columns themselves are created by the light that reflects off tiny dust and moisture particles in the air, so the look of the beams can change from night to night, depending on wind, fog and clouds.” There have been reported sightings of the “Tribute in Light” as far away as West Point, about 50 miles away.

"Tribute in Light" (Photo courtesy the U.S. Coast Guard/Public Affairs 2nd Class Mike Hvozda)

In 2010 the installation made news when over 10,000 migratory birds became trapped in the light memorial. The confused birds were attracted to the intense lights and refused to continue their migratory flight, using up valuable energy needed for the journey. Last year, the lights were shut down five times to allow the birds a chance to resume their normal flight patterns. The Municipal Art Society is now partnering with the Audubon Society to assure that such an incident doesn’t happen again.

In 2010 over 10,000 migratory birds were attracted to the intense lights of this 9-11 installation. "Tribute in Light" was shut down five times in order to encourage the birds to resume their normal migratory patterns. (Photo by Robert Bejaranoray)

But as the Associated Press explained, the future of “Tribute in Lights” is in question. The Municipal Art Society of New York spends around $500,000 each year on the installation, using donations and grant money, but funding is not guaranteed after 2011. There is also talk of finding a permanent home at the World Trade Center site for the installation. Over the past decade, the tribute has been moved from Battery Park City to an MTA garage, but the society needs funding if the installation is to become a permanent fixture in Lower Manhattan.

The Municipal Art Society is soliciting donations from the public in an attempt to build an endowment. People can give $10 by texting the word “tribute” to the number 20222.

A close-up of "Tribute in Light" (Photo by V. Kalsi via Flickr Commons)

If you’re in the New York area, be sure to catch a glimpse of “Tribute in Light.” Depending on the weather, the light installation can be seen from New York City and most of suburban Northern New Jersey and Long Island, Fairfield County, Connecticut, Westchester County, Orange County and Rockland County, New York. The beams are also visible from the terrace at Century Country Club in Purchase, New York, from at least as far west as western Morris County, in Flanders, New Jersey, and as far south near Trenton, New Jersey, in nearby Hamilton. The “Tribute of Light” website has a list of recommended viewing locations in the New York and New Jersey area.

"Tribute in Light" (Photo source unknown)

How will you commemorate the anniversary of 9/11? Is there a certain song, film, or photograph you associate with that day? Feel free to add your thoughts in the “comments” section below.

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By | 2016-11-11T21:55:35+00:00 09.05.11|Images, News, Sounds|Comments Off on Where Art Fears to Tread

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.