July 2002
volume 1, issue 1

  Temporary Monuments

  The fall of the World Trade Center in September was immediately followed by a media-driven discussion about a memorial, or a material gesture of remembrance. Certain of the media looked to artists, architects and other "experts" in the production of meaning to interpret the massive loss and conflicting emotions experienced during the aftermath of the event. The New York Times, bellwether for the opinions of a portion of NY society, ran articles asking certain cultural producers what they thought should replace the physical and psychological hole left in lower Manhattan. Several artists proposed parks; Richard Serra, in keeping with his monumental body of work, called for new buildings, even larger than the previous ones.

Within the art world itself, artists like many other citizens met in groups informally and also within the confines of institutions (museums, galleries, art schools). Galleries and museums mounted exhibitions of work responding to the events of 9/11; the New Museum hosted an exhibition of artists from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Residency Program which had been housed on the upper floors of Tower 1. One piece out of all the tributary work effectively spoke of the demise of modernism and economic stability symbolized by the WTC; Mahmoud Hamadani's recreation of a 1970's Sol Lewitt modular cube structure, now crumbled and fallen.

Many artists’ responses did not always enter a broader public discourse. Instead, a new public art formed on the street, with the vast accumulation of posters, objects, and displays created and placed by a portion of the city’s population; including residents, workers, tourists, and passers-by. The public itself. This archive is, in its totality, an inclusive, participatory artwork, which dwarfs any deliberate gesture made by artists or institutions to interpret the events and aftermath of 9/11.

Immediately after the WTC fell, missing posters went up all over lower Manhattan. These were functionally futile but had great value as a larger phenomenon; a temporal memorial to the dead, an archive of souls. The posters were eventually taken down (although an occasional new one appeared on downtown lampposts) and replaced by handmade signs, photographs, t-shirts, candles, stuffed animals, flowers (real and fake), flags, banners. These collections or shrines were at first distributed within any significant gathering place below 14th Street. They are now contained in fewer areas; a church fence near Ground Zero; the subway station at Union Square; Grand Central Station. All critical points of convergence and divergence, and of maximum pedestrian traffic.

Most of the offerings near Ground Zero seem to be from elsewhere- after all, it is a tourist site. There is a visible effort to belong through mark-making, regardless of the origins of the mark-maker. In the graffiti covering the Paris cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried, the iconic word "Jim" is carved into trees and sarcophagi, transcending a need for translation. The repetition adds to Morrison's mythos, whether inscribed in true mourning, idolatry, or trendy grave-scribbling. These gestures are doubly for the absent subject and for the author herself.

The singularity of the cemetery graffiti suggests an overarching presence, despite subtleties of penmanship. The collection of objects commemorating the WTC represents a more complex authorship, stylistically and functionally diverse. Can personal marks be writ large and monumentalized- or does the monumentalization and reproduction of this type of gesture remain purely sentimental, cliche, or kitschy? This stands in opposition to traditional notions of monumentality; size, mass, centrality, and permanence.

The New York Times championed the idea of Luxor-style, twin searchlights shining upwards, filling the absence left by the World Trade Towers with a brilliant ghost. The intangibility of light is appropriate here, but the purity of this abstract gesture is reductive. It speaks more of the loss of architectural space than of bodies. The physicality of the WTC is absent (wallboard, hallways, cubicles, sweat and smell of human habitation), perhaps better symbolized by the unruly shrines left as offerings rather than the grand narratives of hope, goodness and redemption symbolized by the columns of light. These collections, or temporary monuments, to the WTC present a new paradigm that cannot be easily contained within an institutional frame.

There is an absence within this public artwork: that of dissent. The mutable arrangement of objects exists within social space that is legislated as such, by unspoken rules of conduct that rooted and temporary communities perform daily. During the first week after the attacks, an abundance of hand-lettered signs appeared, expressing political viewpoints and annotated by anonymous others. A month later, with free speech rights vastly curtailed, all evidence of true public discourse was removed in favor of sympathetic and patriotic statements. Is this unity or a civic editorial process? It remains to be seen if any future memorializing gesture can reflect the true range of viewpoints. The enormous absence of the WTC towers suggests an enormous presence, which can be replaced by another monolith or by a deliberate massing of the polysemic and the personal.