Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Falling/failing 9/11: Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman Debacle

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Falling/failing 9/11: Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman Debacle

Article excerpt

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The following essay is an attempt to grapple with the representability of 9/11 through the supposed failure of one sculpture commemorating the New York attack, Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman of 2002 (Fig. 1). Fischl's sculpture, publicly exhibited at Rockefeller Center on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attack, was quickly removed from display because some New Yorkers were upset by its use of a nude female figure tumbling through space to represent the victims. For them, Tumbling Woman was a too vivid reminder of those forced to jump from the burning Twin Towers. More than an aesthetic or even moral issue, I suggest that the protest against Fischl's work is an index of a national post-9/11 psycho-social state of anxiety. I will demonstrate how this particular sculpture is demonstrative of the contentious nature of representing 9/11 through Fischrs controversial choices to represent this tragic event using a body, a victim, and a woman. As such, Tumbling Woman was a telling test case in the construction of post-9/11 identity in New York City and in the nation at large following the attack.

By attending to the negative reception of Tumbling Woman it is not my intention to suggest, as Michael Levine recently did, that the age of "monumentality, or meaningful memorials and memorialization in the public sphere is over" ... although the complications presented by Tumbling Woman will be familiar to anyone studying the current theories of public memorialization. (1) Fischl undertook the sculpture by personal motivation and not through public commission. As a result, it thus does not speak as directly to the controversial issues of public space as the other Ground Zero commissioned spaces and structures. Tumbling Woman's singular concentration nevertheless provides a compelling foil to the grandiose schemes for Ground Zero that give witness to the reigning orthodoxies of both triumphatist populism and aestheticist minimalism. It is my suggestion that the rejection of Tumbling Woman was but one example of a nascent desire to regulate and channel post-9/11 visual rhetoric into a predictable and ideologically controllable form, one that suited the needs of a populous feeling under attack and of a nation state that at the time was considering an extension of war-making.

I. The Memorial Problem. Representations of the attack on the World Trade Center have taken a great variety of forms over the last five years, from Anne Nelson's immediate creation of the psycho-therapeutic play The Guys (2001) to epic Hollywood movies such as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (2006). But the early prospect of representing this tragedy in its immediate aftermath was so ominous to artists and directors that it caused some of them to withdraw depictions of the World Trade Center that were already in the pipeline of cultural production. Some of the most well known examples of this reluctance came with the digital editing out of the Twin Towers in films that were shot before the event, such as in the movie Serendipity (2001).

The 9/11 tragedy was seen more quickly by more people than any other in history. One of the pronounced challenges to artists and architects attempting to represent 9/11 was that they needed to account for the vividness of these already-consumed images in their considerations of an appropriate artistic response. The mass audience consumption of this tragedy and death through its specularization in the media created an audience immediately familiar with the visual character of the event. But this instantaneous mediated experience was at the same time spatially and psychologically distant from the viewer. One of the most profound difficulties in representing 9/11 therefore has to do with the particularly stark contrast between the intimacy of viewing the immediate and omnipresent visuality of television coverage and at the same time the tragedy's marked physical absence in the viewer's experience and also in the marked absence of buildings and bodies on the New York City 9/11 site. …

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