When the towers fell
Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of 9/11
WHAT IS IN a date? Some days can feel altogether irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Others are so momentous, so tragic, they open a wound in time so powerful they appear to steer history in a different direction. Or so it seems. September 11 is such a date. As many across the world watched in horror as the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City unfolded, we were left in no doubt that a tremendous force was being unleashed, whose impacts would be felt for decades to come. Violence would beget violence. And the terror just the beginning.
The impetus for this volume can also be traced to a very specific date in time. On Sunday, February 21, 2021, The New York Times featured a headline story marking 500,000 COVID-19 deaths. While this devasting milestone had evident numerical resonance when thinking about the scale of the loss, just as remarkable was the way the newspaper chose to represent the tragedy. Mapped out on a vertical grid, each victim of the virus appeared as a black dot, whose dense granulations were meant to emphasize the depths and duration of suffering. Leaving aside both my issues and the evident symbolism to this column of death that reduced life to a hyper-digitalized speck of dust, what also struck was the comparisons invited with the World Trade Center, whose shadow cast its ominous presence over the years that followed.
While the recent violence in Afghanistan has now shifted the discussion somewhat, what also unsettled me as we started approaching the 20th anniversary was how very few people were talking about 9/11 anymore. Indeed, even if it is talked about today, especially by politicians, it is rather neatly consigned to a moment when justice needed to be served. Had we simply forgotten about that day? How could those images (which many felt would be forever with us) simply become yet another brutal day consigned to the annals of human suffering? Had we normalized the terror so much it was no longer even questioned? Were we perhaps now so attuned to images of violence that they no longer impacted the way they should? Or had we simply exhausted everything there was to say on the subject, including how to escape from the violence itself?
In the years that followed the violence of 9/11, like many I was fixated on the spectacle of its occurrence. But I now see I should have given just as much attention to the absences — the disappearance of life and bodies that would never be recovered, the disappearance of the towers and the invisible scarring of wounded skies, the disappearance of alternatives as we carried out war as usual, and the disappearance of optimism as the world found meaning in vengeance and hate.
Gerhard Richter’s September returned in this moment with a devastating purpose. What marks out this devastatingly intimate portrait of the atrocity is the real power of art and its ability to offer a transgressive witnessing to history. Like the best in abstract art, this work offers so much depth and possibility for reinterpretation. But what I have also learned to see about this portrayal is how it also invites many angles of vision. Just as the horror of 9/11 was photographed from every conceivable angle, so this painting, like the “/” that cuts into time and proposes its own rotations into an already tilted future, invites us to rotate the composition, marking out in the process what I believe to be the four acts of brutal disappearance.
Figure 1: Gerhard Richter “September. 2005”. © 2021 Gerhard Richter. Reproduction rights granted
Gazing upon the composition as intended, we are once again peering through its glass as forced voyeurs into the suffering of thousands. Whether this is the screen on the television set that brought the terror into the homes of so many or the glass of adjacent buildings from which desperate survivors in closer proximity looked on, is difficult to tell. In this image, the violence of movement is defining. From this angle, we see the painting is capturing the moment of impact from the second strike. We now know this was no accident. Yet what we also see through the soft hued toxic dust is how presence and absence, appearance and disappearance, are not and never were strategically opposed. They occupy the same movement in a violated time. It gestures, in fact, to a sacrificial present already being left behind. But what exactly is the nature of this vanishing? Certainly, it is more than the rage and the fire.
Rotating the canvas at 90 degrees clockwise, what now appears is the aftermath to a catastrophe. The faintest traces of the fallen towers can now be detected as the earth consumes the dust. In the middle of the composition, we gaze upon what looks like the open Atlantic waters and the beckoning horizon that are set beneath the crisp yet obscured blue sky. Below the white band takes the shape of a road, perhaps with a vehicle entering or leaving from the right. Maybe this is a sign of life returning to the haunted city. Still, the vertical marks remain on the dirtied glass, for something has fallen to the streets below.
A further rotation brings us back to the memory of that day. We are back to the original scene. This is the first act of uncertainty. The initial violence of that day. It is a return to the moment where nobody had any answers. And it is a reminder of the importance too of memory and how it works in abstract ways, ferociously scarred and subject to its own movements and trajectories. Memories, in other words, that can also be marked by the unstoppable force of the winds of change, anxiously recalling what can easily be co-opted into the historical process.
The final rotation gives us a composition that is arguably the most surreal and yet the most cataclysmic of all. The waters of Manhattan have now been raised and occupy a more liminal space. There remains a certain calm. The sky is as blue as it was on that beautiful September morning, when the city is at its most hospitable and its color at its most delicately alluring. Upon closer inspection, however, we see the sky has fallen. The top of the painting features the brutal column that looks like it may collapse at any given moment. Like the weight of history, so this blackened void threatens to descend and destroy the horizon, destroy the coming days.
Richter reminds us of the importance and exceptionalism of art. And by this, I mean he returns us to the human. Discourses on the exception were all the rage in the aftermath of 9/11. Often these were invoked to point out the exceptional abuse of power and the interventions that followed. What happened after 9/11 wasn’t exceptional. It was terrifyingly normal. The exceptional would have been to imagine the unthinkable, to imagine a response that didn’t include violence.
As the memory of 9/11 fades, we need to hold on to the exceptionality of things. This needs to happen, so we remember what is unique about each and every atrocity. We don’t gain anything by flattening history. Nor do we gain anything by invoking hierarchies of suffering. Instead, what we need is a conversation which speaks across multiple terrains and is as open to the past as it is to the future. I hope this volume is at least curated in that spirit of ethical remembrance.