There and Not There: the World Trade Center Towers in Art

Below are three works of art that include, as part of their subjects, the World Trade Center towers.

I.

"West Side Highway" (1977) by Mitch Epstein

This picture was taken in 1977.  Its effect, for a long time, derived mainly from its symbolism – from what its juxtapositions suggest about modern life.  A man rests on a cot beside a large American car, close enough to the city to be involved in it, but far enough from it to be associated with his more natural or uncivilized origins; he is, somehow, both heroic and pathetic. The looming towers of the World Trade Center represent (with the other buildings) the idea of city itself.  They seem to have been intended, by the photographer, not to remind us of what they are specifically – the World Trade Center towers – but of what they are generally: archetypes of ‘cityness.’

The picture still succeeds this way.  Art depends on internal order for success, and that order, once achieved, can’t be undermined or taken away, even if the subject a work depicts is destined to be changed by history. This picture contains feats of composition that make its appeal – as a representation of a modern human predicament – difficult to ignore. And yet, due to the singularity of the World Trade Center towers (and the trauma now associated with them), this appeal might become secondary, a context in which we recall an event the artist did not and could not have foreseen.

When I first saw this picture, in an art book in a used book store, I didn’t process it as a work of art.  My eyes immediately went to the towers, not for reasons that had to do with the aesthetics of the picture, but because of the psychic precedence any image of the towers holds for me.  I wanted to resist the photographer’s intention that the buildings be seen generally (rather than specifically) so that I could dwell on a feeling that had nothing to do with the picture, or that only had to do with the picture by chance. It was as if I was taking stock of my mental health as it pertains to the memory of September 11th.

I don’t know anyone who died in the events of September 11th, but I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard about what was happening.  This isn’t remarkable, but the fact that it isn’t remarkable is.  It’s indicative, I think, of the intensity and singularity of the trauma, and it goes a long way to describe the influence trauma can have on the way we experience art.

II.
The documentary film, Man on Wire, tells the story of the Frenchman Philippe Petit, who, in 1974, walked between the twin towers on a high-wire.

Though the film wasn’t made until 2005, no mention is made in it of the events of September 11th, because, as the director James Marsh explained, “What Philippe did was incredibly beautiful…It would be unfair and wrong to infect his story with any mention, discussion or imagery of the Towers being destroyed.” I mention this not to agree or disagree with Marsh’s decision, but rather because the decision itself resulted in a piece of art that, in one way, isn’t unlike Epstein’s photograph; both works involve the towers in such a way that the fate of the towers, while unknown or unacknowledged by the respective artists, cannot be entirely extinguished from the consciousness of the contemporary viewer. We look at the photograph, or watch the film, knowing what is to happen at this specific locale at a certain point in time; and even if we are able to banish the knowledge from our conscious mind, it still exists in our subconscious.

The result, I think, is a kind of haunting that inhabits the intended meaning of the work. (By intended meaning, I refer to what the work communicates if we exclude from consideration the fact that the towers collapsed). In Man on Wire, for instance, we are moved by the story of Petit not only because what he did was bold and unlikely, but because he did it in a place that, for many of us, is a specter. In other words, it is almost impossible to experience this work solely in terms of its intended meaning; the physical appearance of the towers is too closely bound to the tragedy in which the the towers were involved.  Yet if we are able to incorporate the sight of them into the particular piece of art in which they appear, they lend to that piece a special gravitas. In the least, they evoke a sense of mortality and pathos.

III.
Below is a photograph by the Finnish artist Jari Silomäki.  It belongs to a series called “Weather Diaries,” in which texts are combined with images to create a strange sort of journal, one in which the personal, the natural, and the political coexist.

Finlandia Hall, three hours after the collapse of World Trade Center.

Here, a snapshot of a concert hall in Finland is transformed by the text that accompanies it.  There is an ordinariness to the picture that suddenly becomes eerie when seen in conjunction with the event to which it alludes.  The cold-looking weather becomes mournful, knowing.  The visible becomes an evocation of the invisible.

This picture belongs to a discussion that includes the previous two works because it reveals, in an inverse way, the same thing the others reveal – how certain historical events can influence, even overshadow, what we are meant to be looking at.  Here, we might see Finlandia Hall, but only until we finish reading the text.  Then we don’t so much see it as see through it – we are a given a different kind of access to a specific memory.

This is why Silomäki’s project is important: for the way it creates a space to deal with trauma. All his pictures in “Weather Diaries” (you can see more here), encourage us to see the world with inexperienced eyes, by which I mean eyes that are not numbed or tired – eyes that are not, in a sense, our own.  We can become so accustomed to encountering traumas directly (through our own memories, as well as through the social construction of our world [media outlets, the internet, etc.]), that we forget the benefit that comes from encountering traumas indirectly – from remembering them when we are not expecting to remember them.  This isn’t an endorsement of surprise or shock as artistic technique, but rather an endorsement of art as revelation.

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5 thoughts on “There and Not There: the World Trade Center Towers in Art

  1. Hi Edward — I like what you say at the end here about trauma — that seems right on.

    Though I still wonder about the Epstein photograph and if the image of the WTC is really supposed to be viewed archetypally or metonymically… it seems like there’s a deliberate contrast between that guy precariously trying to rest and the big business and bustling “trade” that’s presumably going on inside the towers. I think the specificity is important.

    • I see what you’re saying Michael…could be you’re right. I feel as though the framing of the towers (in part, as opposed to in their entirety) directs our attention away from what they are specifically, though maybe the framing doesn’t have the effect I imagine it has.

  2. Very nice Edward. I really like how your sentences in this and other essays are very relaxed and humble – a voice not deranged but full of range, even, lusterless.

    The Silomaki speaks many things at once it seems to me. What they all are, I can’t say. Obliquely going at things – WG Sebald said the same thing about writing of the Holocaust, that writing about people who would be later effected by the event or the survivors gave one an inlet into the unimaginable horror in a way Schindler’s List could not evoke. Our minds seem to fill in the trauma, we don’t need our faces rubbed in it, a la Passion of the Christ.

  3. Oh, and I thought the Erik Satie piano music in the film clip was also a commentary of some sort. The gymnopedies – some of the most lulling, possibly mournful/possibly celebratory music imaginable. I guess on the surface it matches the emotions of the interviewees, but also the triumph of the man on the wire.

    • Thanks Greg for the comments. I love Satie’s music as the soundtrack for ‘Man on Wire.’ It’s haunting, but not depressing. Also, I’m looking forward to reading some Sebald.

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