On Dust and Bravura at PS1

For a long time I didn’t want to talk about 9-eleven.
(I am thinking) “Dust seems too obvious a reference.”
I saw it make frightful masks of many faces on that day, inhaled my fair share of the stuff in the days to follow.
                                                                                                                                        Maybe that is why I ignored that room.  I didn’t even notice the figure on the bench.  I just kept on moving.  I didn’t hear the music either; and the empty bulletin boards did not even register.  I just avoided it all much the same way other reminders of 9-eleven get ignored.  I needed a less direct path to approach Roger Hiorns’, “Untitled”, 2008 (atomized passenger aircraft engine), Harold Mendez’ “Better off then than when life was babble?” & “Nothing prevents Anything,” both from 2007 and George Segal’s “Woman on Park Bench,” 1998.  I needed to come at it obliquely.  To sneak up on it, rather than let it engulf me, the quick-sand memory of it.  And so I did.  Without being aware of it.

                                                                                                                                           From the second gallery on the North side one can enter the larger central space from a vantage point that feels considerably less confrontational.  And perhaps by not having to deal with facing the large open space head on my mind was more willing to suspend judgement if for only a few minutes.  Suddenly the pile of powder shifted from its aerial view topography to a mirror image of itself carving downward cavernously.  And so it oscillated for me almost at my command, from a pile to a pit and back.  It had the uncanny effect of displacing not only one’s sense of depth, but also distance and proportion. Standing at its edge, where carbon black veins trace their way in and around the undulations of what once was an airplane engine I begin to really examine the material and to resist an urge to touch it, much in the same way one is both curious of and repelled by Aunt Alice’s ashes in the urn on the mantel.  Which brings me to what I believe to be at the heart of this work.

An airplane engine is a large solid piece of machinery.  It has substantial physical weight and presence as an object that when intact can refer to the trust we have in science and the industry that responsibly manufactures it so that a plane can accelerate enough to experience lift, keep momentum in the air and land safely.  It is not in any way ephemeral. And yet, this engine is a granulated mass; and though reduced to particulate matter, it is not dispersed.  Like a cremated person, it is transformed.  If an engine, an airplane engine, can be atomized, what of us?  We can only draw ourselves nearer to a question of mortality.  By being a witness to this material death of an airplane, we stand at the edge of the gaping hungry mouth of wanton destruction, or at the mound beneath which the dead are carelessly buried.  We are at the death pit at Bergen-Belsen, or in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur.  We are at the breach between chaos and death, where 9-eleven resides for most of us.

Flanking the ashes and the dust of Hiorns’ work are two blank bulletin boards best seen from across the room in order to appreciate the transformation of what they are upon approach: white fields punctuated by what is not there.  No messages, no images remain, only the staples and and small corners of paper that indicate a previous use or purpose. They are rendered useless.  There is nothing more to say.  The missing are presumed dead and the home-made posters have been removed.  This is a natural course of thinking.  In the absence of printed material that would give purpose to this normally utilitarian object, it comes to life in the popular memory of how any message board in New York City ten years ago became an outcry of loss, a temporary monument to lost souls. The blankness speaks to the futility of language and image, both rendered meaningless in the wake of indescribable events.

Punctuating the other end of this central space is Segal’s sculpture of a woman on a park bench.  She is contemplative before the messiness of pulverization.  Her legs are crossed, one hand on her knee.  Her energetic focus is both inward and outward.  One foot touches the floor, one floats.  She is both present and far away.  Gravity keeps her in place, but she is a white shadow on a black bench.  Something has transpired in this room that has turned her into an outline, a ghost.  From the main entrance she is not immediately perceptible.   She is an objective witness, resigned to experience the brutal truth of demise but is not emotionally invested.  Her presence comforts us.  There is something plain about her, something ordinary.  And yet it is hard to ignore how much she appears like a figure from Pompeii in this context.  Frozen in a quotidian moment that would normally never be remembered, much less immortalized as a statue, she is embalmed by the dust, trapped inside its thick layers of toxicity.

This triangulation of art that feels somehow logical in the illogic of 9-eleven is ruptured by the aspirational music of John Williams.  What once may have represented American bravura, now sounds ironic and sad, a musical placebo at best.  At first I was offended by the obviousness of the Williams orchestrations, but as I walked around the room talking in all the works as anchors of meaning in that particular space, the music became muddy and even irrelevant.  It became clear that it had passed into the realm of American nostalgia, no longer able to define the emotions of today’s popular culture, it is now a melancholic drunk version of who we once were as a nation.

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