911: Present Tragedy As Future Americana

911ashes

911: Present Tragedy As Future Americana

Next to this “Exhibition Overview” is a rough crayon drawing of an American flag by an elementary student in Knoxville, Tennessee: the words “God Bless America” are awkwardly yet movingly added to the flag between the stripes. Together, this “Exhibition Overview” and the amateur child’s drawing set the tone for an exhibition that naturally features only a fraction of the tens and thousands of pieces of original material received to date by the Library of Congress. The exhibition is organized by an “Object List” which is further divided into different material types. Beneath each material types list are the printed titles of each piece, each artist’s or author’s name, and a description of the mediums used. When you click on the object title, you get a thumbnail image of the object itself.

The first material type is “Serials and Government Publications.” This section is populated mostly by alarming day-after newspaper headlines screaming banners like “America’s Bloodiest Day.” To see these any collector or archivist cannot help but be reminded of similar newspaper banners for crucial moments in American history: Lincoln Shot, D-Day Declared, and of course the already clichéd Pearl Harbor reference. The next material type is “Prints and Photographs.” These are composed of an interesting mix of works clearly rendered by professional artists and works by amateurs of all ages, including, in no particular order, an inkjet print by Marie Blanchard of a woman crying near a TV set, the words “Can’t Stop Watching TV” printed across the image; an airbrush drawing by Chendra Cherrito called “New Fears” which simply features a jet flying at an angle close up; an electrostatic print with porous point pen paste-ons, the words “Nothing Seems Safe Anymore” printed across the page; an artistic memorial to the firemen of Engine Company 54, who lost 15 men, by Thomas Lanigan; and several drawings by children responding to 911 which in their mix of precociousness with naiveté are as effective as the professional artist’s pieces, if not more so.

The next material type is “Documentary Photographs.” I found these perhaps the most successful part of the exhibition, if for no other reason than their immediacy jars the viewer back into the reality of that catastrophic day. The photographs include a stunning image taken by David Finn called “Nuns looking at missing notices following September 11th terrorist attack, 2001, New York City,” in which the habited nuns congregate in front of one of the defacto “missing boards” on which people posted flyers looking for their loved ones, this one seemingly taken in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was the main trauma center to which the few survivors were taken (St. Vincent’s “missing board”, containing literally hundreds of signs and images, is now encased in Plexiglas as if the hospital is trying to preserve it for posterity); photographs of street memorials with their candles, photographs, artifacts, and rosary beads; pictures of the towers at the point of explosion; and pictures of people covered in a ghostly white ash, dazed and confused at having made it out of the burning building and not knowing what to do next.