Monday, January 21, 2019

‘Rendering the Unthinkable’: 9/11 Exhibit Review

The 9/11 Fall exhibit “Rendering the Unthinkable,” going on right now at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, achieves its aim. The “unthinkable” is the tragedy of some 3,000 Americans dying in the World Trade Center buildings along with related attacks and disasters of that day. The symbolism of the sadness, the hope and even the radical deafening sense of quiet are all present in these works.

The themes of the show form a metonymy of spiritual grace, which is a metaphor across categories. Upon viewing the show, one might think of Nicholson Baker’s novel Traveling Sprinkler, which has a set of ideas that form such a theme.

The metaphor in Baker’s story is the traveling sprinkler, which is a primitive ancestor to the drones used in warfare. Furthermore, the metaphor symbolizes peace—the travelling sprinkler is a gardening tool—and then at last the symbol is the author himself, who no longer wants to travel and mourn about the tragedies he has seen. But people who go to “Rendering the Unthinkable” are guaranteed to carry the weight and pain of the moment.


Tobi Kahn, “M’AHL”-Credit: Jin Lee, 9/11 Memorial.

Tobi Kahn’s “M’Ahl” is a sculpture of wooden blocks bolted together and painted gray. M’Ahl resembles a bird’s eye view of a New York in the apocalyptic aftermath of the attack. The gray of the paint represents the dust from the destruction.

The artist’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and this speaks to the work because even though New York came together after the attack (represented by the bolts around the wooden blocks) no one wanted the cause of this binding force to be induced by such a devastating attack. New York is bound together in ashes and dust, and all of the buildings look the same cast under the dark shadow of the gray, which is a true representation of unity through sorrow.


Eric Fischl, “Tumbling Woman”–Credit Mary Boone Gallery.

Eric Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman” is a life-sized sculpture of a woman falling. The subject is a contemporary art theme gone awry. In this case, one might survey the Chelsea art galleries to see figure drawings and paintings of bodies without background images to guide the viewer. Thus, these figure drawings ask the viewer to decide whether the figure is falling or sleeping.

In Fischl’s sculpture, the ultimatum—falling or sleeping—is subverted twice; firstly because the audience knows the context of the sculpture, and secondly because the falling body has a grotesque contortion. The state of the audience’s consciousness is clear because of the context of the exhibit, and the state of the figure’s consciousness is explicit because of the position of the body. The meaning behind this sculpture is interpreted as such: No one who is party to this sculpture can “sleep” through the tragic events of that day.

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Christopher Saucedo, an artist of this exhibit who lost his brother instantly in the attacks, created three prints of white paint on handmade paper called “World Trade Center as a Cloud” (All three photos to the left credited to Christopher Saucedo). The prints show the shapes of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in white silhouette on a bright sky, blue background. The effect of the white print makes the towers look like a wisp of smoke, as if the artist is asking God in heartbreak and sorrow an incredulous, “Just like that? Gone?” This contests against the steel and ruins in the 9/11 museum, which physically surround the viewers as they look at the work.

The “clouds” of the towers blot out the power of the sky. In this way, the work is a rebuke to the strange reassurance of one-color postmodern paintings—an example being Rothko or Jasper Johns. Souls and spirits may go to heaven like a wisp of smoke, but that doesn’t make the emotion and result any less painful.

The Blue Man Group’s entry to the gallery is a video of paper embers falling, called “Exhibit 13,” with the artist collective’s music playing a melancholy song. This is a change of pace for artists more closely associated with the whimsical fun of Broadway art-rock, and in fact, the absence of joy here makes for a huge loss.

In other words, the artist collective’s benediction for this exhibit is part of the performance of the work; even though that perspective on the work is an accident. Blue Man Group’s submission here recalls Lenny Kravitz’s activism for World War II soldiers who were not recognized in their lifetimes because of racism. Kravitz, who is black, campaigned for his grandfather, who was overlooked for being Jewish. It was Kravitz’s tacit point that there was no contradiction between his two ethnicities. Both the Blue Man Group and Kravitz are primarily known for rock’n’roll, and in their political works, both seek grace over absurdity.

In A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, the art critic warns against a sense of disreality, which is not believing the world is surreal or unreal, so much as feeling so detached and alienated from the world that one takes on a feeling of malicious neutrality. In this exhibit, the existential absurdity and indifference of the terrorists meets real people—in terms of physical wreckage and emotional pain.

A corresponding religious sentiment comes from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who wrote a person should not get tricked into “picture thinking” where context and narrative are impatiently discarded. These works of art offer strange consolation—if they offer any consolation at all. After Barthes and Hegel, a better compliment might be that these works gave insight to the narratives of people who actually lived through this tragedy. That will have to suffice.


All art work and cover photo retrieved with permission from 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s “Rendering the Unthinkable” exhibit press kit. For more information about the event, please visit

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