9/11 art and the ‘Course of Empire’

Patriotic artwork giving way to a more critical perspective on the 14th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

James Reinl
The twin blue beams of the Tribute in Light that will again brighten the skies above Lower Manhattan on Friday night [Jin Lee]

New York, United States – One image shows smoke billowing from the World Trade Center. Another depicts the iconic hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib. Nearby, Osama bin Laden and a grim promise that the “worst is yet to come”. Finally, a simple message: “USA: Fear Eats the Soul.” 

This is not propaganda spread by radical Islamists hell-bent on crushing the United States. It is part of a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that devotes a whole section to the post-9/11 epoch.

The Whitney styles itself as the “pre-eminent institution” for US art. Its selection of post-9/11 works is bleaker and more unsettling than other shows on the theme, and projects a disturbed nation that still struggles with the events of the past 14 years.

“We looked at a lot of work made since 9/11 and noticed many artists presenting a troubled United States, if you will, post-9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina, post-recession, and what we began to think of as a changed world order,” Jane Panetta, one of the curators, told Al Jazeera.

“The works reflect a problematic period for the country. That the US was in a moment of national struggle and international struggle. On a global stage, both in terms of our actions and of outsiders’ perceptions of the United States.”

A depiction of a hooded prisoner at Iraq's Abu Ghraib by sculptor Richard Serra [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
A depiction of a hooded prisoner at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib by sculptor Richard Serra [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

The works appear as the Course of Empire section of the Whitney’s retrospective of US art, called America Is Hard to See, which runs until September 27 and celebrates the 85-year-old gallery’s new premises in the city’s chic Meatpacking District.

Americans are used to seeing 9/11 depicted as a national calamity, with artworks about jets careering into towers that act as solemn tributes to the nearly 3,000 people who died in the strikes and the first responders who tried to save them.

Scrap metal from toppled skyscrapers has been used in a sculpture that lionises firefighters. Underprivileged New York youngsters have stitched together The 9/11 Peace Story Quilt, which asks: “What will you do for Peace?”

The so-called World Trade Center Cross, intersecting steel beams that were found amid the rubble, remains on the tourists’ check list at Ground Zero. On Friday night to mark the anniversary, the twin blue beams of the Tribute in Light will once again brighten the skies above Lower Manhattan.

The World Trade Center Cross is made of intersecting steel beams found amid the rubble at Ground Zero [Jin Lee] 
The World Trade Center Cross is made of intersecting steel beams found amid the rubble at Ground Zero [Jin Lee] 

Meanwhile, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is presenting a photo series by Jonathan Hyman of murals and graffiti memorials that sprang up across the US. They feature American flags and such mottoes as “united we stand” and “this means war”.

In one instance, a two-storey home in Connecticut was decorated as a massive Star-Spangled Banner. Similarly, Hyman’s show features a beefy New York firefighter who devoted his entire back to a tattoo honouring colleagues who “gave all”.

Back in 2011, several New York art shows marked the 10th anniversary of the attacks; they focused on the event itself and its aftermath. In a contemporary review, the New York Times said the shows “rekindle grief” by reviving an “intense and confusing panoply of emotions”.

The Flag House, National September 11 Memorial & Museum [Jonathan Hyman]
The Flag House, National September 11 Memorial & Museum [Jonathan Hyman]

“I’ve seen a lot of bad work that came out of 9/11,” Stephen Stapleton, co-founder of Edge of Arabia, an art project that began in the wake of the attacks to build bridges between the West and the Middle East, told Al Jazeera
“A lot of bloody towers made out of different materials and artists who approached the subject too literally.”

The show at the Whitney marks a departure from schmaltzy patriotism.

Two pictures by Aleksandra Mir set the scene. Her cartoonlike versions of newspaper covers from 1998 are eerily prescient, with bin Laden, head of al-Qaeda’s network, warning “the war has just started” and the “worst is yet to come”.

Keith Mayerson’s 9-11 is a whimsical and dreamy oil painting set at 9:03am on that eventful day, seconds before the second hijacked airliner slammed into the South Tower. It is less grandiose than other versions of the tragedy.

Abu Ghraib, by sculptor Richard Serra, is a lithograph of a hooded captive in the eponymous Iraqi prison, where US forces tortured inmates after the 2003 invasion as part of former president George W Bush’s so-called “war on terror”.

'Osama' by Aleksandra Mir: the Whitney [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
‘Osama’ by Aleksandra Mir: the Whitney [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

Other pieces show the US in decline and disorder. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s contribution declares: “USA: Fear Eats the Soul”. Artist Wayne Gonzales presents Dick Cheney, the hawkish vice president of the period, with an upturned US flag above the phrase: “So Long Suckers”.

Glenn Ligon’s neon sign, Rückenfigur, shows the word “America” with inverted letters; curators suggest the nation’s “sense of gleaming promise is shadowed by doubt”. Ed Ruscha’s painting The Old Tool & Die Building shows America’s decay via a graffiti-covered factory that has been bought by Asians.

“The show raises questions about our expectations, as audiences, on whether we anticipate art to be more patriotic when it relates to 9/11,” Livia Alexander, an expert on Middle Eastern and American art, told Al Jazeera.

“Artists often take on a more critical approach and show more troubled aspects of society. Good art pushes us, pokes holes in our thought and makes us think, feel, reflect and respond.”

The events of 9/11 have doubtless left a lasting mark on the American psyche; the Whitney’s show follows years of soul-searching about the attacks and their legacy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

'This Means War', the National September 11 Memorial & Museum [  Jonathan Hyman  ]
‘This Means War’, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum [ Jonathan Hyman ]

Pew Research Center, a polling group, found 97 percent of Americans who were old enough at the time recalled exactly where they were upon hearing news of the 9/11 attacks – more than the 95 percent who remember John F Kennedy’s assassination.

But other feelings have waned. While 46 percent of respondents cited terrorism as the top threat to the US in October 2001, that figure had fallen to about one percent by 2011 and has stayed low since, according to Gallup, another polling group.

More significant are the shifting attitudes to Washington’s costly interventions in the Muslim world. Back in 2002, Barack Obama, then a Democrat senator, was ahead of the curve when he called the looming invasion of Iraq a “dumb war”.

Nowadays, against a backdrop of war fatigue, Obama has been joined by a chorus of critics that includes Republican contenders for the 2016 White House race. Even Jeb Bush, a candidate, has called his elder brother’s invasion of Iraq a “mistake”.

The Whitney’s version of the era came as little surprise to two of its younger visitors this week.

“It bummed me out because America’s kind of a mess,” Mathilde Heinemann, a 24-year-old Californian told Al Jazeera after seeing the show. “We’re confronted with all of this constantly. I’m embarrassed of this country on a weekly basis.”

Visitors at the Jonathan Hyman show [National September 11 Memorial & Museum]
Visitors at the Jonathan Hyman show [National September 11 Memorial & Museum]

Her New York-based friend, Jasmin Tabatabaee, 25, feels much the same way. “We were in middle school during 9/11 so this kinda stuff is really familiar to us. We don’t necessarily want to relive it in [an] art museum.”

It is tempting to conclude the Whitney’s exhibition follows this trajectory towards an ever-more jaded assessment of 9/11 and its aftermath. If art imitates life, perhaps it also mimics opinion polls.

For Mir, the artist who made the newspaper posters about bin Laden, it is too early to make such lofty inferences about art, politics, and 9/11.

“Art is slooooooow,” she told Al Jazeera via email.

“It takes an artist decades to react in any significant way to the times they are living in, and even longer for institutions to make sense of the art that is being made. I am still waiting for that paradigmatic shift to hit me in the head and materialise in some spectacular way, but I just can’t see it.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

The pavilion at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum [Amy Dreher]
The pavilion at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum [Amy Dreher]
Source: Al Jazeera