Art in Paradise: A Terrible Day

It’s been only a week or so since the 10-year commemoration of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Already, the background static of American life has submerged thoughts of that terrible day and its appalling loss of life, instead turned to nattering about the small, immediate matters of the everyday, things like Netflix’ doubling down on annoying business decisions by splitting itself in two.

I didn’t want to tune in to the televised reminders of 9/11. It makes perfect sense to look back at that time, but the scarring trauma of that day is not something I wish to spend a lot of time replaying—it has felt too real and present ever since. I have watched the Towers fall too many times already. The day itself was bad enough, and in the months that followed, catastophe seemed all too nearby.

Thanks to the trauma and fear that became so real on 9/11, we as a nation steered exactly the wrong course. The wake of that terrible event saw even the absurdly maligned French declaring “We’re all Americans now,” a remarkable expression of the zeitgeist which might have continued had we but stuck to the ideals that used to define us. What happened instead was possibly the biggest squandering of good will in our history, a wholesale abandonment of what had been American ideals. Now, like it or not, we torture, engage in pre-emptive war, and have endured the politics of endless fearmongering. The fearmongers and architects of an impossible and endless war against an abstraction (“terror”) have laid claim to 9/11 as their ultimate justification, but all of us went through that time, and none of us “owns” it.

Watching the unravelling of so much that had been American complicates the commemoration of a day that didn’t “change everything,” but which changed exactly the wrong things. It’s very hard to feel anything but sadness at what America now unavoidably stands for. Even the election of a new president has changed little. The trampling of civil rights and the justification of the criminal act of torture have not changed; they’ve only become less central to the political debate.

I spent much of Sept. 11, 2011 at an art exhibition at the Canal Gallery in Holyoke. Art invariably offers something more useful in traumatic times than does watching televised ceremonies. Many of the artworks on display—paintings and collage panels of news and clipped images from the year following Sept. 11, 2001 by Mary Bernstein; an installation of sculptural elements in protest of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by Harriet Diamond—were concerned directly with the aftermath of 9/11. The third exhibition, Matthew Mitchell’s first 50 portraits from the 100 Faces of War Experience, was concerned with the wars of recent years. The atmosphere was somber, but involved no thoughtless flag-waving, no unquestioning, blanket embrace of the justness of American actions. It felt like a space in which one’s reactions could be personal and undirected.

After wandering through the exhibitions, witnessing a performance piece by Krista DeNio, and seeing a panel discussion with artists and veterans, I headed out. On my way to the door, I noticed something I’d somehow missed on the way in. It was a sculptural piece by Holyoke-based artist Bruce Fowler. Two bright plexiglass towers, maybe seven feet tall and a foot wide, stretched up in a dark corner. A few handfuls of light gray ashes filled a bottom corner of each. The ashes came from the Twin Towers, and were collected by the artist in 2001.

Fowler’s sculpted response to 9/11 was uncomplicated, deeply affecting, and all too real. I stood transfixed for a few minutes, trying to come to grips with the reality of those ashes. It’s often difficult, when faced with an object aeons old or an object of historical significance, to somehow feel that importance, to make the artifact seem like something other than a hunk of wood or random pile of ashes. Perhaps because Fowler devised a simple and evocative context for the ashes he collected, it was all too easy to look at them and feel the importance of the agonizing struggle for American ideals that has followed the rubble of that day, too easy to remember the terrible spectacle of towers full of people turning to ash.

Fowler’s piece, unadorned with faux patriotism or political agenda, turned out to be the most useful remembrance of the event I have seen. Though I’m sure his work will resonate differently for others, it reminded me why the old American ideals are still worth standing up for, why it’s worth resisting a helpless transformation to a terror-fueled shadow of our former selves. I wandered from the gallery into a warm night, glad to have been right there, right then.

Author: James Heflin

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