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Commemorating 9/11 in public art

By Juliette Martin

Section: Arts

September 14, 2012

In many ways, the attacks of September 11, 2001 have defined the tone of our society for the last decade in addition to permanently altering the lives of thousands of Americans. It has become a focal point of our culture, a meeting place of pain upon which all ethnic backgrounds and political creeds can unite, and a rallying cry for the common love of a flawed nation. As such a relatively fresh and poignant aspect of our history, one that has an effectively limitless emotional weight, it is no surprise that the outpouring of art in reaction to this tragedy has been of an overwhelming amount. From professional pieces, to novices seeking to express their pain, all the way down to the scribbles of frightened children, art has been used as a method of coping and sharing, expressing in a more pure form the emotions that no conversation can convey.

The presence of this art is, of course, strongest in New York City. It started small: across the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital, where many of the wounded were taken, tiles painted by children at a nearby elementary school decorated the fence of an empty lot. Still hanging over ten years later, when most of the children who painted them have long gone off to college, the tiles are mostly the same: American flags and towers that predominantly read “God Bless America,” along with scrawled signatures. The tiles are the art of the children who lived it, and similar public installations dot the city.
Years later, these smaller and more personal memorials have dwindled, but a more official and more permanent one has come into fruition at the permanent memorial on what used to be known as Ground Zero. A shining new tower now climbs up over the city horizon, reflective glass shedding sunlight over the city during the day and bright lights illuminating the horizon in vivid color at night.
One year ago on the tenth year anniversary, the National September 11 Memorial Museum opened at the heart of the new World Trade Center. The museum serves as an art installation and memorial, showcasing the lives of those who perished in the attacks and trying to represent not only the emotional struggle that those affected have personally gone through, but also the collective pain of a stunned and uncomprehending nation.
On its website, the museum states, as part of its mission: “[To demonstrate] the consequences of terrorism on individual lives and its impact on communities at the local, national, and international levels, the Museum attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirms an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.” This concept of attesting to the triumph of human dignity is reflected in the outpouring of art related to the events of September 11: Art has been used not only as a coping mechanism, but also as a way to proclaim our individuality, humanity, and strength in the wake of a new enemy, which would seek for us to be defeated and dispirited. Instead of giving in to such demands, the country speaks out and proclaims an undeniable spirit in the language of remembrance and art. “The Museum will be about each of us, about what it means to be a human being, and what it means to live in a complex, global community at the start of the 21st century. It will, we hope, be a place for understanding ourselves and the world in which we live, a place for promising the kind of world we want to bequeath of our children and grandchildren,” says director Alice M. Greenwald in her address to the public on the museum’s website. The museum is more than just a memorial; it is an open discussion of what it means to live in the post-9/11 era, and a message of hope for a better future.
In addition to the physical museum at the new World Trade Center, there also exists the National 9/11 Memorial Museum Artist Registry. The registry is a public online space to which anybody can contribute art, in any form, so long as it was created as a result of September 11. The database is not formally curated, but is meant to reflect the sheer breadth of art produced, and as a collecting ground for the vast grief and overall cultural reaction.
This public artistic forum is a brilliant method of bringing together a vast body of work that showcases the same themes and ideals, something that will certainly be looked to in future studies of the culture of a post-9/11 America. The sheer concept of having a public database collecting all art, of all levels and forms is fitting: How else can we chronicle the cultural upheaval of such a traumatic event without looking at the art that was born of it?

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