An anniversary is approaching; one that is burned into every United States citizen’s mind. An unforgettable date scorched with the nightmarish memory of nearly 3,000 people dead. September 11, 2001. Just uttering the date brings back unwanted flashbacks of TV screens flooded with the repeating cycle of towers collapsing, phone calls not being returned, and schools and office buildings being evacuated.
United States citizens were unaware that when the news spread that day that their lives and others would become a collective mourning. Now, fifteen years later we are still sharing our stories, and the thirteen artists in the “Rendering the Unthinkable; Artists Respond to 9/11,” an exhibit in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, are doing so in a big way.
The exhibit consists of various media including video, sculpture, paintings, and more. One of the video pieces titled “Daughter, September 3”, created by Colleen Mulrenan MacFarlane. The video features her washing the T-shirt that her father wore during his three consecutive days of work in the rubble with the fire department. Running at five minutes in length, the video includes radio transmissions from the heroic firefighters. This perfectly captures the work done by all who responded to the scene looking for living or dead bodies under mountains of ashes.
Another piece, “World Trade Center as a Cloud,” created by Christopher Saucedo, was created in memory of his brothers who were also firefighters, one of which died during the event. This piece involves pressed linen pulp on handmade paper, and includes three panels. A shocking blue forms the background as a wispy cloud in the shape of the World Trade Center is the center attraction.
Other artists told their close call stories. Todd Stone, the artist who painted “Lifting,” “9:03,” and “3:45,” was in his Tribeca studio painting and taking photos of the sky, and later was evacuated from his house. The debris from the towers drifted until they rested a block before his residence. However, with the time he spent in his studio he was able to later create three watercolor paintings. Each one displays the chronological changes in the sky during that morning. Another artist, Ejay Weiss, who created “9/11 Elegies,” was a Manhattan resident that watched the towers collapse while he was on the same street where his studio was located. Weiss’ acrylic paint was mixed with both the ash from Ground Zero and the World Trade Center’s garage. This piece contains a crosshatching web of darker acrylics that box off a hole in the center, which shows a blue sky and some clouds. Weiss’ piece is a metaphor to show the fallen structure from an underground perspective.
A few of the artists told their stories about the rain of ash and debris that flew into their studios and apartments. Michael Mulhern painted “Ash Road 14-45” and “Ash Road 2-45,” both oil and aluminum paint on gessoed paper. These paintings had a purpose before his apartment became coated in smoke and dust, but Mulhern changed his mind. He chose to recreate similar textures to those that fell on 9/11. Mulhern used ash from the site as well as several tones of gray, black, and steel to copy the soft texture of papery debris. Even celebrities added their stories, like the famous Blue Man Group that produced the video “Exhibit 13” after scraps of paper from the World Trade Center entered their practice room. The lyrics for “Exhibit 13” are a spontaneous mix of the words found on the fallen paper. In the video you can hear the song being played in the background, while similar scraps of paper fall gently through the air.
Other artists did not have much to offer as stories go, but instead they pieced together a collective story about the tragedy. Such as Donna Levinstone’s “Eternal Rest,” a three piece painting that includes her emotions from the photos, news media, and smells that crept into her apartment. The pictures feature different versions of an orange pastel cloud on a black paper background. Levinstone believed that the clouds of debris on that day guided people into a deep eternal rest. While Manju Shandler created the installation, “Gesture,” which includes exactly 2,977 small portraits for each person that died on 9/11. Shandler used grease pencil, acrylic, and spray paint on polyester film to make this color changing piece.
Though 9/11 occurred fifteen years ago, Americans continue to mourn the loss as if it is a fresh wound. Bereavement comes in all forms, some cry, others are silent; but some tell stories. Stories such as the ones told by the thirteen local artists in New York give a connection; a visual reassurance that United States citizens can stand as one at the end of the day.