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A Difference in Kind: Spontaneous Memorials after 9/11
by Harriet F. Senie


At a national memorial site this ritual leaving, beyond linking the living to the dead, defines the way individual experience and public event are conflated in memory. Offerings often reveal much about personal relationships to the dead as well as the significance of these deaths in a larger social context. They are evidence of the existence of collected as well as collective memory, reflecting various personal strategies for mourning. But on Sept. 11, 2001 there was one profound difference and that, for a time, changed the nature of the practice.

When people gathered initially and in the days that followed at Union Square, the closest open public space to Ground Zero, the number and identity of the casualties were unknown. This was reflected in the nature of the objects left. The offerings left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and spontaneous memorials in general appear to fall into four main categories: relics pertaining to the deceased; gifts for the dead; objects of shared experience; and commentary. Relics may take the form of articles of clothing or personal possessions associated with the deceased. Understandably there were few of these at Union Square since the missing initially were hoped to be just that. The only thing gone for certain were the twin towers and there were a number of anthropomorphic and effigies of those, immediate icons for what was lost.9

Similarly, there were no gifts for specific individuals or objects of shared experience.10 But evidence of commentary was everywhere, transforming this symbolic cemetery in-the-making into “a forum to publicize grievances and to right wrong," an echo of the role cemeteries once played in nineteenth century U.S.11 There were personal expressions in poetry and prose written on the ground or on the huge rolls of paper provided for that purpose. American flags, which soon became ubiquitous throughout the city,12 appeared draped in front of the statue of George Washington and in his hand. Henry Kirke Brown’s sculpture, the second equestrian monument to be cast in the U.S. and the city’s first outdoor bronze sculpture, dedicated on July 4,1856, functioned as the symbolic locus of the state and national power.13 Covered with comments of love and peace, the statue conveyed a decidedly mixed message.

The crowds that gathered around the clock at Union Square appeared intent to create a communal space, a place providing comfort in numbers in the most uncertain and frightening of times. As one young man remarked, “You get a little hope in togetherness.” In a few days the nature of the gathering at Union Square changed, becoming more of a festival reminiscent of 60s happenings.16 Early on the Department of Parks in consultation with the Art Commission decided to remove the graffiti from George Washington and restore Union Square to its pre-9/11 state. This process of desacralization, what Kenneth E. Foote calls the rectification of a site , implies “no lasting positive or negative meaning” will be associated with it.17 And, indeed, that has been the case.

By early November, when lower Manhattan was partially reopened, the main site of the spontaneous memorial shifted to St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Episcopal parish, a block from the trade center site on Broadway. (Immediately after the 9/11 attack and for some eight months the church became a refuge for relief workers at ground zero.18) When the public began congregating at the site, the church hung huge canvas drop cloths from the surrounding fence so visitors could sign their names and leave messages, creating what was called “the world’s largest guest book.” A year later some neighborhood residents began requesting the removal of the mounds of material that could now “be mistaken for a camp for derelicts.”19

While Union Square and St. Paul’s were the primary loci of spontaneous memorials, their widespread proliferation especially to firehouses, marked local sites of loss. For a while it seemed possible to feel that New York had been turned into a temporary shrine, but that experience was determined by where in the city you happened to be. Just as after the sudden death of Princess Di people gathered at those sites she had frequented in life, so New York’s spontaneous memorials clustered at places once inhabited by those who perished on 9/11.

Photographs are a common feature of spontaneous memorials, assuming or standing for the aura of the deceased.20 Beyond their fragile materiality and symbolic resonance, these images conflate private and public space in a dramatic and significant way. After 9/11 photographs were taken briefly from the intimate frame of the family album or mantle display, copied and paired with personal information on paper posters that provided the vital statistics of those initially presumed missing. The sheer magnitude and proliferation of these images affixed to neighborhood fences, storefronts, subway stations, and lamp posts transformed the anonymous character of many New York public spaces. People gathered and paid attention as they rarely do in this city of millions, suddenly participants in some kind of communal wake, often silent, sometimes asking strangers, “Did you know..? How is...?” As the presumed missing were acknowledged dead, the photos became memorials to strangers that had already somehow become more than that.21

Photography after 9/11 also assumed another role, enlarging public participation, recording the actual event, details of the destruction, and aspects of the recovery. The impulse to document was immediate for many, prompted by the realization that this was a historic moment. Instead of running for cover many grabbed their cameras and rushed to rooftop vantage points. Photography provided both a way to participate and perhaps a safety valve, a quasi-professional shield, a protection of sorts from the actual horror of reality.

Many of the works of these amateur photographers/historians, as well as their professional counterparts, were quickly displayed in an impromptu exhibition, “Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs” organized by Alice Rose George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan , and Charles Traub. Images were scanned, printed on archival paper, pinned to the walls and hung from strings at eye level through the 116 Prince Street Gallery in Soho. There were no frames and no names. Anyone could buy a print for $25 and many did. In the first two months more than half a million dollars in net proceeds were donated to The Children’s Aid Society for its World Trade Center relief efforts.22 The exhibition evoked the chaos of memory, the visual, sensory, emotional overload of jumbled images, fragments that even altogether couldn’t quite capture the whole. Subsequently, like the AIDS quilt, a portion of the exhibition traveled in segments to the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography in New York and several cities in Germany.23 At each venue where I viewed it, public response was stilled, contemplative, profoundly emotional.

In November 2001 Exit Art issued a website-based open call for personal responses to 9/11 expressed on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch piece of paper. From January 26 through March 30, 2002 over 2,500 responses were displayed on free standing supports and in looseleaf binders at the Soho gallery directed by Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman who conceived of the project. “Reactions” included poetry, musical scores, texts, letters, drawings, paintings, collages and photographs, an echo and extension of the objects already gathered at spontaneous memorials in more public spaces.

Around the same time (January 17 - February, 2002), an exclusive invitational exhibition at Max Protetch Gallery in Chelsea curated by Protetch, Aaron Betsky, the staffs of Architectural Record and Architecture magazines, and other architecture professionals, featured 61 submissions that re-imagined the World Trade Center Towers in ways that never strayed far from the original. Even though “The New World Trade Center: Design Proposals” was barely more than a rehash of the old,24 the public came in droves (it was crowded even on weekday mornings) and stared in rapt attention at visual evocations of a world that suddenly no longer existed.

The need for temporary memorials beyond the spontaneous was clear. Early on the proposal for “Phantom Towers” featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine on September 23, 2001 seemed to strike a resonant note for many. Initially the concept of Paul Myoda and Julian LaVerdiere, it eventually also included the work of John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Richard Nash Gould, and Paul Marantz.25 Realized through the efforts of Creative Time and the Municipal Art Society, it was named “Towers of Light” and eventually renamed “Tribute in Light” to shift the focus away from the towers that had come to symbolize the 9/11 loss. But the beams of light that illuminated the night sky for a month in 2002, no matter what they were called, only confirmed the iconic power the towers had come to assume.

The last steel column from the rubble left at the World Trade Center site, covered with graffiti, became like the survivor tree at Oklahoma City, a relic of great symbolic value. On May 30, 2002, in a ceremony marking the official end of the recovery effort at ground zero, the 58-ton beam from the south tower was towed from the scene wrapped in black muslin and an American flag.26 A symbolic body if there ever was one, carried out to the sound of taps played by buglers from New York’s fire and police departments and “America the Beautiful” played on bagpipes, was now inextricably linked to national identity.

On 9/11 and for some time thereafter much of downtown Brooklyn was covered with dust and office paper from the World Trade Center. The view of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade provided a vantage point but little emotional distance from lower Manhattan. People immediately attached posters and messages to the fence at various focal points where clusters of candles were lit and relit until they gradually melted into puddles of wax. A huge, hushed crowd gathered to observe the inaugural lighting of the Tribute in Light and again to celebrate its last night.27 Today the only remains of the spontaneous memorial is a single framed photograph of the twin towers, hanging from the fence at the end of the Pierrepont Street entrance, marking the spot where their absence is most visible. Everything else was cleared away by Parks department employees on May 30, 2002, the day that marked the official end of the retrieval of remains from the World Trade Center site.

Although the remains of the World Trade Center were buried in effigy in the form of the last I-beam, a longing for the towers remains. At the time of this writing the strongest candidate for the rebuilding of the site is THINK, the team whose emblem of open twin towers clearly evokes the missing skyline markers. The spontaneous memorials, created out of a fleeting experience of community, focused on personal and national loss, are a thing of the past. Instead we have THINK’s fantastical obelisks for the future, empty of all but scale and ambition, the perfect symbols for a culture of denial.

Spontaneous memorials are time and site specific. They cannot be moved, displayed, or organized.28 The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. They are the best of democracy in action - a grass roots public response to a private need, personal messages meant to be shared but not necessarily heard by the powers that be. One sign in particular continues to resonate for me as the U.S. seems determined to go to war, regardless of international support, and permits for peace marches are denied in New York City: “OUR GRIEF IS NOT A CRY FOR WAR.” Although stringently policed especially in New York, the worldwide protests on February 15, 2003 against Bush’s pending war on Iraq29 captured something of the atmosphere of spontaneous memorials after 9/11: a merging of individuals who reflected the spectrum of the world’s populations, civic engagement on an international scale prompted by a profound fear of the future and a need to stand together.

1. These manifestations of public response are sometimes referred to as shrines or characterized as impromptu, grass-roots, makeshift, or homegrown. I prefer the designation spontaneous memorials since “spontaneous” contains no inherent value judgment and “memorials” since its implications are more secular. Temporary memorials would also be appropriate but has not been widely used in this context.

2. For an analysis of this practice see Harriet F. Senie, “Mourning in Protest: Spontaneous Memorials and the Sacralization of Public Space,” Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 1999, pp.23-27.

3. See Thomas B. Allen, Offerings at the Wall: Artifiacts from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection (Atlanta:Turner Publishing, 1995) for an illustration of many of the objects left at the wall.

4. Cemeteries are not, of course, monolithic. For an interesting illustrated history and typology of burial grounds in the U.S. and see Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo Jose Vergara, Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989). Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery (created in 1864 and today the most visited burial site in the U.S.) has a history of using rank and segregation for organizing its graves, and offers no centralized place to gather. Burial practices also reflect various ethnic traditions. See, for example, Richard E, Meyer, ed., Ethnicity and the American Cemetery (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993).

5. Allen, p.8.

9. John Kifner and Susan Saulny, “Posting Handbills as Votive Offerings,” New York Times, Sept. 14, 2001, p. A9 describe a postcard featuring an image of the twin towers covered by a handwritten message: “They are missing. I am looking for these two great brothers of New York.”

10. Gifts for the dead usually appear around major holidays and birthdays, continuing a ritual practice of life. Objects of shared experience are more general, often pertaining to sports, spirits or smokes, and sometimes more intimate activities.

11. Jackson, p.120. For a more detailed analysis of the relationship of spontaneous memorials to cemetery rituals see Harriet F. Senie, “Mourning in Protest.”

12. Flying the flag seemed another spontaneous a response. Images appeared in the New York Times, Sept. 14, 2001, pp. A1, A14-15, with the following captions: “Flying the Colors: Americans responded to the attacks by displaying the flag;” “A Symbol Offers Comfort On New York’s Streets;” “Americans at home and overseas confronted this week’s terror attacks with one simple gesture, flying the flag. The displays seem as much acts of defiance as of patriotism.” Over time the flags eventually morphed into more frivolous fashion statements and patterns on sheets, among other things.

13. For a general discussion of the sculpture see Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen, Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1988), pp. 91-92. Its gesture derives from Michelangelo’s Marcus Aurelius monument at the Capitoline Hill in Rome although the implicit comparison to a Roman emperor would have been both anathema to Washington and unknown to most contemporary viewers.

16. See, for example, Michael Kimmelman, “In a Square, A Sense of Unity,” New York Times, Sept. 19, 2001, p.E1.

17. Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997) designates four categories for the treatment of such sites: sanctification, designation, rectification, and obliteration.

18. For a description of the early activities inside the church see David W. Dunlap, “Polished Marble and Sacramental Scuffs,” New York Times, Aug. 25, 2002, Sect 11, pp.1,6; Daniel J. Wakin, “Chapel and Refuge Struggles to Define Role,” New York Times, Nov. 28, 2002, pp.B1, 7. The church produced three videos for sale on its role in the relief process.

19. See Michael Wilson, “How to Say `Enough’ Gracefully,” New York Times, Oct. 11, 2002, p. B1.

20. See Elizabeth Edwards, “Photographs as Objects of Memory,” in Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward, Jermy Aynsley, eds. Material Memories: Design and Evocation (Oxford and New York: Berg, 1999), p.226, for a provocative discussion of the role of photographs as relics as well as the significance of their material forms.

21. For a discussion of this transformation process see Geoffrey Batchen, “Requiem,” Afterimage, January/February 2002, p.5.

22. Handout published by the International Center of Photography in conjunction with a series of exhibition titled “Aftermath: Photography in the Wake of September 11,” np. The exhibitions were on display Jan. 11- Mar. 17, 2002.

23. For a review of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art see Sarah Boxer, “Prayerfully and Powerfully, New York City Before and After,” New York Times, March 6, 2002, p.E1. For reception in Germany, see Otto Pohl, “Sept. 11 Photo Exhibition Touches a Nerve in Berlin,” New York Times, July 7, 2002, p.8. In addition to Berlin, the exhibition was seen in Dresden, Dusseldorf, and Stuttgart.

24. For a more detailed review of the exhibition at the Max Protetch Gallery, see Harriet F. Senie, “National Icon: The Transfiguration of the World Trade Center Towers,” Sculpture, Oct. 2002, pp. 81-82.

25. See “Filling the Void: A Memorial by Paul Myoda and Julian La Verdiere,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 23, 2001, p.80. The two artists had been working on a project about the buildings from their temporary studio on the 91sr floor of the north tower. The eventual month-long existence of the 88-searchlight sculpture extinguished on April 15, 2002 attracted worldwide attention. Response appeared unanimously positive. See,for example, Andrew Jacobs, “In Morning Sky, Seamless Exit for Twin Beams,” New York Times, April 15, 2002, p.A12; photo p.A1.

26. This ceremony was widely recorded on radio and television and in the press. See, for example, Charlie LeDuff, “Last Steel Column From the Ground Zero Rubble Is Cut Down,” New York Times, May 29, 2002, p.B3, photo p. A1; Dan Barry, “Where Twin Towers Stood, A Silent Goodbye,” New York Times, May 31, 2002, pp. A1, B6.

27. My thanks to Iris Klein for her observations of this site during a seminar titled Capturing Memory: Strategies of Contemporary Art that I taught at the Graduate Center, CUNY during the spring 2002 semester. Even though only a single shaft was visible from Brooklyn, suggesting airport tower transmissions rather than the towers that were, its symbolic resonance was evident.

28. Exhibitions such as “Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning” at the New York Historical Society (Mar. 12 - June 9, 2002) which contained a selection of the objects left at Union Square and other sites had none of the energy or immediacy of the spontaneous memorials. For a review see Glenn Collins, “Vessels of a City’s Grief,” New York Times, March 9, 2002, p. B1. On collecting of 9/11 artifacts in general see, James B. Gardner, “Collecting a National Tragedy,” Museum News, March/April 2002, pp. 42-45; 66-67. At the time of the first anniversary of 9/11, New York City officials circulated plans to capture new shrines in temporary structures intended to protect them from the weather. The public failed to respond.

29. The various protest activities of February 15th were documented in numerous articles that appeared in the following two days in the New York Times.