Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Picture Held Us Captive


Last night I attended a lecture at SVA presented by the upcoming (Fall 2012) "MA Critical Theory and the Arts" Department:  Peter Eleey:  A Picture Held Us Captive.  The description reads: MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey discusses the challenges posed to art by the image culture of the post-9/11 era and how he sought to navigate some of these challenges in organizing “September 11,” an exhibition at MoMA PS1 marking the tenth anniversary of the attacks.

I was not familiar with Peter Eleey before this lecture, and what struck me most about him was his contemplative way of speaking.  Every word was intentional; carefully picked as he fiddled with the mic stand, eyes drifting up towards the ceiling as if his word bank could be found there.  I mention this because there was an incredible amount of thought put into this exhibition - the pieces chosen received all the meditation and deliberation as the words he chose to explain them.

In this hour-long lecture, Peter showed photos from 9/11 as well as from the exhibition, carrying us through his inspiration for the show then his reasoning and philosophy behind his curatorial decisions.  As for reasons for the exhibition, he cited a desire to work with "temporal specificity instead of site specificity."  Over the years, Peter has noticed some divine coincidences between exhibitions and the major historical events that transpired during their runs.  One example being Saddam Hussein's execution occuring during the MOMA's show, "Manet and The Execution of Maximilian."  He wanted to create a show with that sort of historical counterpart, but without being able to see the future, his options were limited to recurrences rather an occurrences.  I'm not sure how many options he entertained before landing on 9/11;  maybe it was obvious.  I got the feeling it was...

His first challenge was finding art that he felt would be fitting for the exhibition.  With the exception of a few pieces, he hasn't felt that there has been any contemporary works that really speak to his proposed post-9/11 image culture.  In fact, one piece that he felt did was unveiled one year after the attacks, causing public outrage and was subsequently removed.  It is Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman (2001/02):


The outcry was that is was "wrong", arguing that since it was in a public space (Rockefeller Center), it could not be avoided.  Like the photo The Falling Man, it demonstrated the seemingly unanimous feeling that representing the victims was an abuse of the image, and served as a precursor to the censor placed on future images of that nature (for example, the coffins of fallen soldiers from the upcoming Iraq War).  The intensity of their protest was, to Peter, a testament to the power of the image.  To take it a step further, the power of images that, regardless of their historical context and proximity to 9/11, would illicit strong emotions when seen through the frame of 9/11.  This was the thesis that Peter Eleey went on to explore then employ when putting together September 11.

At one point, Peter said that as long as he chose well, then 9/11 feelings would be projected onto all of the work.  Citing visitor reactions to pieces like a Modrian memorial (installation across the street on the sidewalk) and Janet Cardiff's "The 40 Part Motet", he felt as though he accomplished that.

Thomas Hirschhorn. Mondrian Altar. 1997. During installation, an onlooker asked if the person had been killed in 9/11.   
Janet Cardiff, The 40 Part Motet. 2001.  At the opening, a visitor complemented Peter on his representation of the Pennsylvania flight with this piece.  There were 40 people onboard.

One criticism of the show is that Eleey is changing the meaning of the work by placing it out of its original context and into an exhibition explicitly about September 11th.  In his own defense, Eleey pointed out that a museum can provide a caption but that doesn't dictate/change the way the viewer experiences the art.  I think the point is also that it's not his exhibition that is dictating or changing the meaning of the pieces contained in it, but rather 9/11 itself. 

9/11, temporally transfixed as an event and by our referral to it by its date, nonetheless marks the start of something:  a period in American history that to this day has not ended.  Many people, myself included, suppose that we are the makers of meaning.  Peter Eleey proposes that 9/11 proves that history can, and is currently, making meaning out of us.  He further cited the historical regression he has observed in America over the past 10 years.  Bush, again.  Iraq, again.  An increase in remakes and attempts to "keep" live performances.  He sees us as trying to look back into our history in order to understand, citing "the violent dejavu" of the attacks as a major cause.  When the first plane hit, we were all wondering what happened - was it an accident?  Human error?  Then the second plane hit, making it clear that it was a deliberate attack and forever changing the historical recollection of the event.  The sheer trauma of that day, coupled with the deluge of images that pervaded our media, has had an ongoing effect on the American people.  Our struggle to understand, the subsequent backslide, and the perceived meaning and also censorship surrounding images post-9/11 all add to the "captivity" placed upon us by 9/11.  This, Peter Eleey proposes, is the post 9/11 image culture.  His exhibition is a discussion of that culture that he offers without reservation, but rather, with honesty and grace.