A Common Space in Which to Grieve

John Haber
in New York City

The world of deep caring can be built once again out of grieving
     — Susan Sontag

Outdoor Sculpture: Summer 2002

Grieving is universal, but a memorial creates a common space in which to grieve. It maintains a lasting site for grief, when the process of grieving must itself include forgetting. It must bear the terrible burden of awakening memories, long after many wish only to forget. It places death and remembrance on a heroic scale, after memories of dying become the only remaining heroism. It makes explicit the problem of public art, in a culture at once harshly conservative and violently contested. Brian Tolle's Irish Hunger Memorial (with Gail Wittwer-Laird, 2002)

Right now, New York City's future and a public memorial mean confronting what "the public" means in the first place. In turn, artists have to think again about their relationship to a public space, decades after Minimalism thrust the art world into the real world. After avant-garde statements and corporate monuments alike have failed, art and design will be entering the same sprawling space as everyday fears. My personal path winds from Ground Zero to the 1980s and then back, through a new Irish Hunger Memorial and to the (almost) annual "Between the Bridges."

Which space . . .?

One year after the Twin Towers fell, much of the Trade Center and surrounding neighborhoods is quietly rebuilding. Workers in the Pentagon are moving back to offices once destroyed. Ground Zero, however, remains an open pit, awaiting the National September 11 Memorial, but beset by tourists and scale models of the future.

Naturally the slow pace reflects sheer physical obstacles. The tons of metal waste, threats of the Hudson bursting through, concern for air quality, and respect for the dead—workers had to handle all of these. Still, clean-up went faster than anyone had imagined. Additional conceptual barriers take on a still grander scale. Instead of simply reconstruction, New York must discover what all of lower Manhattan has become.

Fortunately, art and architecture thrive on such leaps of the imagination. As the project turns to rebuilding, though, it faces the most intractable problems of all, politics and community. The Port Authority, the city, the state, and a private developer—all have a stake in the property, and they all depend on each other and the federal government for money. The developer insists on enough towers to restore his office space, although rental demand on that scale already belongs to a previous century. Everyone else in New York has a stake in the outcome, too, a stake less easy to express but just as critical.

The result? For now, a stand-off. "We haven't reached conclusions about what actions need to be taken," said a deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding on August 14. One day before, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation extended its design competition by three months.

The extension has creative dimensions, too. As The New York Times summarized it, "The corporation said it was seeking excitement, creativity and energy—three qualities that were conspicuously missing from the original designs." Instead of six firms, architects from around the world can give it a go. Their parameters have shifted, too, to include concerns for housing, shopping, street traffic, and perhaps especially the memorial. They have to address public expectations for the twin tower's "footprints," and the towers indeed have trod heavily on a city's memory.

All-too-public voices have spoken. The president's speeches, the incumbent governor's campaign ads, and the first anniversary media blitz—all have drawn comfort and support from a dulling invocation. The public has been speaking loud and clear, too, just not in unison. Faced with the opening round of six proposals, the outcries have little in common but vehemence and nostalgia. Many believe that any construction would desecrate ground made sacred by the dying. The rest, it may seem, deem any plan short of recreating the fallen towers a surrender to terror.

. . . And which public?

One can easily make the problem sound worse than it is—and the public more foolish. First, I hate to blame the opinion polls for what happens next. A few gestures should suffice. No doubt buildings to come can echo the past without repeating it. They can easily treat the twin footprints with respect, whatever the exact nature of the public space there. Those who define sacred space to include the entire nine-acre excavation down to bedrock may yet find the outcome of lasting value.

Second, polls and interviews overstate extremes. People may hesitate to challenge them too loudly, for fear of seeming insensitive or unpatriotic. The media may find that patriotism and personal loss make the best copy. The same dynamics, after all, have done wonders for George Bush. New York's governor, too, has made hay out of thanking voters for their fortitude.

Still, most New Yorkers got used to the World Trade Center without ever admiring it. It gave the skyline the familiarity of a brand name. Only a tourist in an era of global capital would mistake that for real creature comforts, much less beauty. Many New Yorkers, too, want a vital, thriving downtown, not simply a shrine. Tribeca's lofts and restaurants, the financial district, the luxury housing in Battery Park City, the ferry landings, and a font of American history—all have sprung quickly back to life. They ask only for a functioning place to help knit them together.

Last, as so often, the apparent extremes together outline a mainstream after all. Theodor Adorno begged for silence after the Holocaust, and his plea has long since turned into a platitude. One heard it again when art spoke up this spring, in a show of tacky but well-meaning conceptual art at New York's Jewish Museum. The polls just translate the cliché from one horror to another and from art to architecture. It remains an almost impossible question to answer.

The extremes converge, too, in an obvious nostalgia. Periods of upheaval naturally ask to turn back the clock. One freezes time at the moment before death, the other at a bitter moment of survival. They let one off the hook, not just in living through tragedy, but also in answering big questions about how it came about and where it leaves one. These questions, too, do not get any easier by my blaming the victims.

The extremes also amount to a consensus on the nature of art as a memorial. Strangely enough, in just twenty years, Minimalism has become the official language of grieving. In fact, it could well have become the standard for public sculpture everywhere.

Which standard . . . ?

Sound crazy? Turn again to the polls. One side hopes to restore two of the most faceless slabs in architectural history. The other evokes their equally barren plaza.

Not that geometry defines Minimalism. A tall tower even violates its spirit, although a short spire will do in a memorial, if only as Will Durant's appropriation. (Remember Barnett Newman's joke, after his own striving for the sublime, that the new generation could not get it up?) However, the two extremes reflect plenty of other Minimalist themes. They express dismay at complex architectural arrays, preferring an open, horizontal layout rather like an earthwork. They think of a memorial in terms of the public's experience of the plot, down to what one can touch or walk amidst, rather than in terms of the objects it may contain.

Neither approach begs for a statue or pavilion. Whether in digging down or in building up, as in the Twin Towers and their footprints, the sole intact objects will get their meaning through repetition and through works in series. A modernist sphere that once stood at the site may return, but severely crushed. Like a Minimalist speaking of entropy, it has given in to time, experience, and the "unmonumental."

When the public has volunteered designs for an actual memorial, it has spoken much the same language, even when artists can suggest so many more monuments for the United States. One idea counts out a bench for each of the dead. Many wish enough surfaces to bear the names of the dead in marble or stone. I keep feeling that I have seen all this somewhere, and probably I have. One thinks of Joseph Beuys, Jenny Holzer, or Rachel Whiteread. One thinks of the ordinary folding chairs already lined up as a memorial in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, only to suggest a distressingly unresponsive audience to the viewer's own awkward performance. Above all, one thinks of Maya Lin—and the most successful memorial in America.

Twenty years before September 2001, the Vietnam War Memorial faced an improbable, uphill struggle for final approval. It won only through the compromise of a realistic statue nearby. And at the very same time, Richard Serra was seething over the response to Serra's own sculpture a short walk from the World Trade Center. In no time, Tilted Arc was history.

Today the Fredrick E. Hart statue of three servicemen looks like a sad parody of the old Iwo Jima monument. It stands all but deserted, while crowds throng to the wall. Where critics of the wall's cut into the hillside once described it as a scar, it now holds all the warmth of flowers laid everywhere, of human touch, and of human memory. It is the statue that looks plain depressing, reducing the soldiers to expressions of pain. And sure enough, today Serra's arcs turn galleries into welcoming spaces. Adults, children, and even dogs frolic in his recent Torqued Ellipses like contemporary twists on an English garden maze.

. . . And for which generation?

So the New York City polls are right after all, and the good guys in the art wars have won? Not quite. As with most stories, there comes another turn or two and, I both hope and fear, an open ending. In a sense, Minimalism is just repeating the usual history of the avant-garde.

Ironically, the process had begun at the roughest point in Lin's or Serra's struggle. If he failed, he failed because Tilted Arc changed the terms of Minimalism's public engagement. From its origins as a rebuke at sculpture or architecture, Minimalism now had asked viewers to accept it as both. By disrupting a plaza used for lunch, it asked to be judged as an object with a function.

Critics have been hard on Modernism for its cooptation. They tie its commercial success to a global marketplace, its optimism to Cold War and post-Cold War America, its geometry to a corporate sector of malls and cubicles. Sure enough, Minimalism gets absorbed in the same way. In lower Manhattan, halfway decent art, architecture, urban design, and art's place at Ground Zero will have to get past polls, committees, tri-state authorities, and a public "development corporation."

Meanwhile, in the hands of individuals, the language of public art and political art is already shifting, as if to recover a space between ritual and performance. It repeats the same process, inheriting the strivings of private art. It even does so faster than ever. That speed reflects the changing tactics of Postmodernism and the efficiency of the art world. Both factors destroy any distinction between public and private in the first place. The chaos of genres, installations, and sheer blather is keeping art vibrant, thoughtful, incomprehensible, and dismaying.

The Jewish Museum showed it, treating the Holocaust to pop culture. The Whitney for the first time took its biennial into Central Park. There one artist returned to statues in uniform, with mixed results at best. Today the plaza that once rejected Tilted Arc holds circular groups of green benches, suggesting interlocking conversation groups or, again, a garden topiary. If it, too, fails, quite empty at lunch, this public space and the building behind it would defeat any artist or architect.

More recently still, just across automobile traffic from Ground Zero, New York unveiled a different kind of memorial. It commemorates American history only indirectly, through events that fed immigration. It appropriates Minimalism right along with the clutter of installation, the anger of political artists like Sue Coe, and the yearning of representation. Earnest, clumsy, frustrating, and maybe even endearing, it addresses the Irish potato famine.

Which narrative . . . ?

The Irish Hunger Memorial lies just north of the marina and the World Financial Center, once a bridge from the river to the World Trade Center. As one walks south, from Hudson River Park toward Battery Park City, one can easily miss the change. I walked right by the memorial's gray wall with its tunnel entrance, mistaking public art for public rest rooms. From the other side, the slope and metal overhang resemble a launching pad for missile assaults on Ellis Island.

From that side Gail Wittwer-Laird's landscaping looks almost natural. Her native Irish rocks, grass, and wildflowers suggest an East Village community park almost as much a starving countryside. And here Brian Tolle transports from Mayo County the actual remains of a ancient fieldstone cottage. He sets it into the hill, like Lin's wall if at no particular angle. The slope lets one walk on top of it or descend inside, like a two-tiered castle. It feels almost as much a maze as Serra's doubled ellipse.

Entering at last, one is back in that tunnel. Dark walls have the charm of office lobbies. Words slide into slots, like lobby signs explaining what floor to visit. I imagined them changing as businesses move into and out of Irish-American history. The words have a bureaucratic air as well. They mix accounts of Irish history and dedications of the site. Unfortunately, they pick on obvious targets, such as Thomas Malthus, and give due attention to the homilies of New York's Republican governor.

The changing height of the walls make it hard to keep track of which quotes one has read. The added burden contributes to the feeling of a school reading assignment. Tolle, however, fully intends the jumble. He wants me to confuse past and present—to see the past as always present. And that is the memorial's theme. One sees it in the mix of stone cottage and harsh walls, of Irish grassland and sweeping views of the Hudson. One sees it in the blend of nature and architecture, of words trapped in stone and a viewer's actions.

Much as I sympathize with the memorial, I dislike it. The dead remain anonymous, but one's experience of the site cannot. Tolle tries too hard to make his points, leaving a cross between a dull sermon and a famine theme park. He turns his back on the evocative silence of prior public art, while inheriting its official tone. In the anonymity of the dead and the natural expanse, he inherits the coldness of the British and of time. Still, he makes one think about a new generation and as yet unarticulated alternatives for a city and for public art.

When it comes to New York, I cannot imagine trying to hold onto the past, to leave it to development corporations, to submit it to the polls, or to worship it in silence. If people whom I respect do not seek to interpret and reshape history, tragedy, responsibility, and remembrance, others will. Meanwhile, as reception of Lin and Serra suggests, art has a special opportunity to define a ground both common and contested. Subject to the market and powerful institutions, it takes ideas private. Conversely, through its shared conventions and potential always to address to a viewer, it then necessarily breaches the line between public and private. And if Adorno sent the wrong message to art, his advice serves as a far worse rule for building communities.

. . . And for which moment?

People make sense of the past by continued dialogue and reflection. Artists make it by speaking freshly and creatively, while listening to the voices of others, too, and they force the viewer to answer. Architects and cities must integrate it into a changing future. No one tried to preserve the ruins of Europe after World War II, or nothing of those nations would be around now. America may be unused to bearing damage even on a much smaller scale, and it may reply by threatening art with "A Knock at the Door. . . ." Yet that makes all the worse a stasis born of platitudes and patriotism.

Thankfully, artists really are moving past institutional models while reflecting on 9/11. One may not see it yet in Manhattan. Just across the way, however, in Dumbo, a summer show gets a fine head start. "Between the Bridges" is back in Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park—and larger than ever. After a year of park restoration, it takes its place at the head of New York's aging summer outdoor sculpture. It draws on the continued artistic vitality of the area, including "Art Under the Bridge," the annual fall celebration of street life and open studios.

Pebbled paths through sand connect the fabulous expanse to a boardwalk along the East River. The Brooklyn Bridge towers above the harbor, with the Statue of Liberty rising beneath its piers. Behind the open-air remains of a warehouse reduces even well-intentioned audio sculpture to a sober buzz. The Manhattan Bridge sweeps north as if all my talk of grieving were just water under the bridge. What will all this look like in a year, as coops expand in Dumbo and the Brooklyn Museum demands attention for artists working in Brooklyn? Yet the view makes it tough not to care about the skyline rather more than a game with architect's models, and the artists contribute forcefully to its meaning.

They do so by drawing on the factory site for materials and associations, as with Michael Whitney's wood ladder shaped into a field of stars. They do so by the power of words, as with Laurel Shute's take on modernist, welded steel sculpture but with playground colors, The Moon Is Watching. They do so by paired construction, as with Robert Winkler's Two By. And they do so with images, as in Kate Dodd's Park Interfacing. She creates rhythmic, at times almost plausible panoramas, in a collage of snapshots up on poles, as if they could not help laughing at fate and the sky.

One of my favorites, Ursula Clark's Twins, combines all of these. Two slender cages of wooden slats, just over human scale, stand just off alignment. From a distance, they look like found objects. Nearer, one thinks of the twin footprints. Bending ever so slightly to step inside, one recalls the fatal entrapment in the towers—but only for a moment. Newsprint transfers offer a sometimes funny, sometimes angry commentary on mass tragedy and official hypocrisy.

On a chilly, rainy day, I had the park all but to myself, as if art and remembrance had to come only from me—and could give in return only to me. Two weeks before, on a dazzlingly hot day, people lay about, tanning, picnicking, and letting art and the future take care of themselves. With a little luck and creativity, one way or another they will. As both caught up in culture and able to represent it, art has a chance to contribute. It can create a common space for living or for grieving, one for which the private-public distinction is useless, an emotional space as much a physical one, a space that otherwise would be sucked into the void of institutions. But that, too, is a matter of creativity, feeling, and politics.

BACK to John's arts home page

jhaber@haberarts.com

New York governor, the city's mayor, and the president of Ireland dedicated the permanent Irish Hunger Memorial on July 15, 2002. The twentieth anniversary summer show at Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park in Dumbo ran through September 15, thanks to the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition.

 

Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME