Magazine article Artforum International

Moving Pictures: Adam Lehner on Art in the Aftermath

Magazine article Artforum International

Moving Pictures: Adam Lehner on Art in the Aftermath

Article excerpt


IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING September 11, it was agreed upon by just about everyone that art, along with everything else, was going to "change forever." No one was clear exactly how, except in the negative sense of "unlike this," so many responded by putting a cloak over works, to hide them, if only for a little while, until they'd figured out what to do next. The Empire State Building's art gallery, for instance, removed a 1945 photograph of a plane crashing into its facade. A radio network issued a ban on songs ranging from "Fly" by Sugar Ray to "American Pie" by Don McLean to "Imagine" by John Lennon. Two performances of the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen were canceled in Hamburg after the avant-garde composer called the attacks "the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos."

Helen Molesworth, curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, found herself confronted with the question of what to do with Christopher Wool's Untitled, 1990, a large painting, stenciled with letters forming the word "TERRORIST," that greeted museum-goers at the entrance to the contemporary wing. When Molesworth learned from guards that some visitors were reacting violently to the image, she decided to stash it out of sight temporarily, until the museum could have a chance to "recontextualize the work after it had already been recontextualizedfc by life." "People were crying, they were really upset by it," Molesworth says. "Using the private art language of the institution, you forget just how public a space a museum really is.... People had come here to get away from the TV and then were confronted with this image. I could totally understand it."

After consulting with several colleagues, Molesworth decided to put the painting back up, adding a brief statement setting the work in the context of language art in general and the social politics of life after the attacks in particular, along with viewer-response cards. "I was really afraid we'd get xenophobic commentary, but not at all," she says. "The painting has actually become a platform for lively conversation and debate here, as perverse as it is to say."

The artist Nancy Davenport was also faced with a decision about whether to continue to show certain work. "The apartments," her show featuring photographs of New York dwellings suffering tiny Photoshopped terrorist assaults, opened at Nicole Klagsbrun on September 6. In one image, a dense cloud of black smoke puffs from behind a row of buildings as a missile approaches. In another, a man stands on a rooftop, aiming a pistol at an overhead plane. "I began the series around three years ago, and my intention was to make art about conflicts between political idealism, individuals, and institutions," Davenport says. "I wanted to raise questions about the interdependency of terrorism and institutional violence against the background of a failed avant-garde. I didn't want it to be about spectacular cinematic effects. I wanted it to be more objective, quiet, drained of color."

In the aftermath of the attacks, Davenport found her quiet effects quickly drowned out by the loud noise of real life. The Village Voice requested use of one of the photographs in the show--a picture of a body falling through space titled Suicide. "My impression was they wanted to run it juxtaposed with a photo from the Times of someone jumping from the World Trade Center," explains Davenport. "But my image was part of a longer engagement with the idea of falling in general. It's not supposed to be horrific at all. The work had nothing to do with the way people would see it." Thus she refused (indeed, Davenport took Suicide out of the show altogether), allowing the Voice to publish an alternative--and scarcely less discomforting--image of a missile strike. She says she thinks it's going to be difficult to talk about formal issues in her photography for a while.

On the other end of the social-aesthetic spectrum, the Viennese artists Gelatin had an opening scheduled for the evening of the attack. …

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