The story of the defining moment is a shifty one, no matter which moment is under the figurative microscope. The punctum of interruption, the flick of a switch, the climax and everything after is the glow — nostalgia, the teachable moment, the revolutionary as icon, George Washington on a t-shirt.
Likewise the story of anniversary — an arbitrary pause lent weight by our obsessive love of time-keeping, clocks and calendars that say there is no insistence, only repetition.
But the media messaging of 9/11 as a central totem of our shared experience romps pretty forcefully over such delicate considerations as theory of time and memory. The tenth anniversary has been remarkable in combining equal measures of powerful restraint and substantial lack of tact. It seems that we cannot stop selling each other Budweisers and Suburbans, even as we agree to insist that “Never Forget” is a sentiment that transcends the prerogative of advertising.
Advertising is the language of our shared experience, and 9/11 is an event birthed in media, spectacle, and the proprietary communication of the image, before and after it is anything else, everything else.
And so it is that many if not most of the “artist’s responses to 9/11”, seeking an individual language to escape the dictates of the spectacle, settle for a hebephrenia of tortured brushwork, a torrent to be read by a viewer who is more or less actively importuned to step in and understand the anguish of the artist, perhaps as a metonym for her society’s larger suffering, but more likely simply as that baffled person being asked to “react” to an event which means to demand no reaction, only capitulation.
But it is better to understand than to be understood, as St. Francis taught. And there are artists who strive to understand rather than to be understood.
This striving, by turns private and public, abstract and concrete, is what I find in much of the best of Ten Years After 9/11, now showing at PEPCO’s Edison Place Gallery.
Several of these artists have found good reason to reject the rhetoric of the defining moment, the punctum of irreversible change that changes the vector of time’s arrow. Michael Platt is one. One who flirts with a mood that would be jaded or cynical in the hands of a younger or less astute painter. Instead of advocating resignation or aloofness, Platt’s The Journey insists that our choice of moments is subject to change, that defining moments can themselves be redefined in a moment.
Chawky Frenn’s Clash of Civilizations takes the same step back, to see this defining moment as but one dish on a serving table heaped with brutalities. From across the room, Frenn’s background seems to evoke the twisted girder of the Towers, but a closer approach indicates something less manufactured, more tender, heaped in smouldering piles behind the posing boy and child. An optimism salvaged from the carnage, or built on it? The painting has it both ways, as a painting will.
Taking the opposite tack of Platt or Frenn, Phyllis Plattner thrives on the punctums, on a history of moments and an art that is iconisms, images who strive to be our currency, who come from a time when art history was history, and from where the unravelling of that position is itself the unravelling of a common currency.
Positioned next to Frenn’s Clash of Civilizations, Plattner’s Chronicles of War/Saint/Moments almost hides out, posing as a work of resistance to the media story. But it seems more actually to want the media story just to be spoken in a different, older language, one that was once common, I suppose. If there ever was a time when easel painting was a Media That Carried Information, Plattner’s elegant archipelagos can be read as an elegy to that world and its information systems of yore.
Another path into and through the request to define a response is to develop a kind of secular sangha, a fellowship community without a creed beyond the common need to live with its formation-event, a sangha of consideration. Kurt Steger’s Burden Boat, is very nearly a rock star of this manner of encouraged contemplation, having debuted in 2009 after the Virginia Tech shootings in nearby Blacksburg, and receiving pride of place both in the gallery and in the broader fellowship ceremony held at the nearby Museum of American Art on 9/11/2011.
This kind of sangha-making is a substantial sub-theme of Ten Years After 9/11. Examples form a hopscotch path across the two rooms of the exhibition, from Steger to Sean Watkins, to WorkingMan Collective, and to Michael Pestal and Helen Frederick.
Watkins’s video installation discourages us from taking in its full measure, and asks instead that we surround it, forming a ring around its ring of inward-facing monitors. The self-regard of the mediated image is to be counteracted by the waves of people outside and above it, we might hope. It is a more hopeful strategy than we find in its neighbor, Despina Meimaroglou’s Rememebrance of Things Past , who quixotically tries to unwish the devil back into his jar through that archetypal alchemism of the modern tribe, setting the recording machine in reverse.
WorkingMan Collective’s Steps is at once more telling and more sly in its encouraged contemplation than Steger’s Burden Boat, or most of the other work around it. Steps will not settle for for the demarcated, deputized “participation” of our writing, but calls for us to walk in, encounter another, and go belly-to-belly in order that we may emerge out the other side. Intimacy is radically transformative — of course we all know this — way beyond anything a video monitor can ever show us.
It is, simply, perverse, to blame an artist for bringing too much to the party, or to accuse them of dissembling when they do. But both of this show’s curators seem bent on outdoing themselves, with installations that threaten to cancel out their impact through the proliferation of dimensions, objects, and ambitions.
William Dunlap has always preferred overload to understatement, given the choice, and Repeat After Me, “They hate our freedoms!” continues the all-in style of play that makes him an artistic card sharp in the eyes of some. I counted no less than four fully-realized Dunlap works in this assembly, another half-dozen appropriated artifacts, and a house payment’s worth of minor antiques and curios, including a katana sword and not one but two preserved snakes. Everything matters in this one man’s history, and the universe remains a local phenomenon.
It all comes together, as they say, through Dunlap’s discerning eye and powerful taste. Immanuel Kant called it, “Discrimination”, a word that carries a very different load today; but one that we would do well to remember in consideration of the range of sublimations, deferrals, and adjustments that Dunlap brings to bear on a world where, we might easily suspect, he sees too much, feels too much, and finally says only a small fraction of what he has come to know.
Helen Frederick’s work has explored the sangha of crafted thought for much of the the last thirty years, combining and collapsing media, and combining and collapsing the roles of painter, printer, actor and director. Her Loss of Innocence makes use of many hands, but it seeks the use of still more. One of Frederick’s Hungry Ghosts, this is work that longs for the touch of many, to acquire the stamp of wear we see in ancient objects, ancient truths.
For now, it seems to have too much of the new to it, and I look at it and wonder — will it ever be touched by enough hands to receives all the caresses it cares for, to take on all the wear, all the cares it seems so capable of taking on — just as the punctum of time, even after ten years, remains too fresh to be integrated into our quotidian living, our lives, our selves. Someday our defining moment will be ancient history, too, perhaps.