Long Legacy: Peter Eleey Talks September 11
Since coming to MoMA/PS1 just 13 months ago, curator Peter Eleey has been, in his words, "building a new institution inside the shell of an old one with a special history and legacy, and thinking about the future." His next contribution to that mission will be "September 11," an exhibition that opens on the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center assault. In Eleey's words, it offers "a subjective framework within which to consider the attacks," which he witnessed from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by including works that address themes related to 9/11 rather than treating it directly. Several works center on mourning and remembrance, such as Susan Hiller's Monument (1980–81), based on photographs of a London monument to the heroism of ordinary citizens, and Haroun Farocki's film Transmission (2007), which investigates pilgrimage sites including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. With over 70 works by 41 artists, from Diane Arbus to Thomas Hirschhorn, the exhibition ranges from the 1950s to the present.
Previous projects Eleey has worked on have garnered him a reputation as a sensitive curator of innovative and often political exhibitions. At the Walker Art Center from 2007–11, he organized the exhibitions "Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing" (2008), "The Quick and the Dead" (2009) and "The Talent Show" (2010). While he was with New York public art agency Creative Time (2002–07), he organized "Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers" and "Mike Nelson: A Psychic Vacuum" (both in 2007), among other projects.
A.i.A. traded e-mails with Eleey about the upcoming exhibition.
BRIAN BOUCHER By including artworks from the past half-century, you seem to indicate that 9/11 casts long shadows into the present and the past. Is there one work in the show that most powerfully sums up for you the feeling of seeing history differently in the wake of the attacks?
ELEEY Jem Cohen's film Little Flags (1991–2000), which he shot at a tickertape parade on lower Broadway thrown for the veterans of the Gulf War in 1991, appears at first glance to be a film made on 9/11. The same streets are filled with paper-albeit under circumstances that feel uncannily appropriate, given the conflation of Iraq with 9/11 that would eventually lead us back to war there.
BOUCHER In the case of Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet (2001), MoMA/PS1's history plays a part. The work, a 40-track recording of individual voices played on 40 separate speakers, was installed at the museum after the attacks. Can you talk about its continuing relevance?
ELEEY That work for me will always be tied to 9/11, since I encountered it here in the weeks following the attacks. Earlier in the year, Janet had created a spatial adaptation of a 16th-century piece of choral music by Thomas Tallis, recording each member of a choir individually and piping each voice into its own speaker, the group of which she arranged in a circle. Sitting in the middle of the room, we hear the full song, but, wandering among the speakers, the voices of the specific singers emerge more strongly.
The experience of hearing a collective song and the individual voices constituting it immediately summoned for me, and for others, the dead of 9/11 and their sublimation into the grief of national tragedy. I decided to simply put the piece back in the same room where it was in 2001—in part to think about what history has changed, and what it has allowed to stay the same.
BOUCHER If I can push back a little bit about one part of the press release, it says that 9/11 remains underrepresented in cultural discourse. There have been a number of 9/11-related artworks (like Wolfgang Staehle's video that unintentionally captured the attacks; Hans-Peter Feldmann's 9/12 Front Page; Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda's Towers of Light; and Paul Chan's The 7 Lights, none of them in the show), just to name obvious examples. Outside the field of fine art, there's the film United 93, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers. Do you feel that despite these instances, the attacks and their aftermath remain undigested in the cultural realm? If so, what do you make of that?
ELEEY I do. I think the issue has been particularly complicated for visual art, because the spectacle of the attacks politicized our visual field. And the wars that have followed have been fought on conflicting terms of visibility; we are instructed that certain things cannot and should not be seen, even as we are encouraged to say something if we see something. But I think the biggest difficulty in addressing 9/11 publicly is our awareness that it was made to be used—that it was designed as a propaganda tool, and an incitement to further violence enacted in its name.
BOUCHER Many, many exhibitions throughout the city are marking the 10th anniversary. Were you concerned about perceptions that a cultural institution might be employing the subject in a self-serving fashion, similar to the cynical misuses you describe?
ELEEY Against this exploitation, many of us weigh our words especially carefully, not wanting to "use" the attacks ourselves in some way. This was certainly something I wrestled with. I suspect that some of that anxiety is also what motivated the angry response to the image Steve Reich chose for the album cover of his composition WTC 9/11, which is about to be released (and the cover image of which has since been replaced). The image of the second plane about to hit the tower is, after all, one we have seen countless times. Regardless of what music, books, movies and art have or haven't been made, an episode like this reminds us how much remains unsayable and unseeable. A much larger cultural and political discussion remains to be had about 9/11 and its enduring impact, and perhaps the 10th anniversary will allow for a certain kind of closure that will begin to make that possible.