It isn't memory that is the issue. It is commemoration. Memory, at least right now, is readily summoned. Commemoration is something else altogether.
The new exhibition at the New York Historical Society, for example, is not a commemoration. Here Is New York: Remembering Sept. 11, which opened yesterday, is exclusively about memory, which doesn't diminish its power. In two galleries 1,500 inkjet-printed photos taken six years ago during those apocalyptic days are mounted with simple stationery clips. They are reminders of hidden pressure points and buried sensations.
These images will jump-start the memories of any New Yorker who smelled the white dust, saw the drifting burned scraps of paper, who ran through the streets or watched in shock, who lost loved ones or still bears searing physical or mental scars.
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
You have to turn your head and strain deliberately, to take in all these images: They are mounted in seven rows on each wall and hung on four cables strung across each gallery. They are not organized by theme, chronology or photographer. Their impact is almost a form of bombardment, a staccato accumulation of sensation, quantity as much as intensity, making a mark.
The photos, without credits, titles or dates, from 790 contributors, range from the amateur to the professional, from the clearly posed composition to the frenzied snap of a moment in which hysteria had to be kept at bay. This was probably the most photographed series of days in history. Was there anyone with a camera who did not try to capture some moment, staring in disbelief, anger or sorrow?
So the images now gather into familiar categories: the stark moonscape of melted aluminum, twisted steel and clouds of dust; the coating of white debris on cars and fleeing human figures; the impromptu shrines of flowers, candles and signs; the posters seeking the missing; the testimonials to firefighters and the police; the faces scarred by shock and tears; and later the uniformed memorial salutes.
These images, last seen in New York in 2002, were first collected in an almost impromptu exhibition in the days following Sept. 11 at 116 Prince St in SoHo, where Michael Shulan, Charles Traub, Gilles Peress and Alice Rose George began to display photos from the event, soliciting contributions from visitors and calling the show Here Is New York, a Democracy of Photographs. (Information about that exhibition is archived at www.hereisnewyork.org)
It was attended by tens of thousands before traveling to other countries. At the time, prints were sold to raise money for the Children's Aid Society Sept. 11 Fund. The creators of the exhibition later donated their originals and other materials to the Historical Society. A book of photos from that show has been published; it is also displayed here.
As mounted on loose sheets, without order or labels or identification, these photographs mirror the impact of immediate experience. But their effect is matched here by a selection of the 500 or so videos that the Here Is New York organizers also made - recollections of survivors, observers, rescuers - shown at the society in a video loop.
The strength of the current exhibition lies in the power of these memories and in the photographic flashes of time in which the unthinkable remains frozen.
Seeing a landing-gear fragment from one of the planes, or a rusted fragment of a Trade Center I-beam, or even a crushed and broken desk clock, with its hands stopped at 9:04 that morning - these are objects that have to be identified and interpreted to take on significance. They are displayed here because they are relics of an event, offering a direct link to the past; but we have to keep that connection in mind, and think again of everything else involved, to give them much emotional significance.
This is one of the limits of mere memory; it remains as sensation or fades as sensation. But this is what commemoration is supposed to transcend. Commemoration provides interpretation; it offers a public meaning that survives the event. It surpasses private experience and continues to provide significance even when memory is long gone. Commemoration is not a matter of healing or feeling; it is a matter of meaning.
The problem is that no other event I can think of has proved so resistant to public commemoration. The record has been dismal. Ground zero itself is still contested ground wrestled over by competing interest groups. There has also been wrangling about a planned memorial in Liberty State Park in New Jersey.
And in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, plans for a US$58 million memorial for the victims of United Flight 93 have focused not on the heroic acts of those who confronted the hijackers but on the creation of a sacral "healing landscape." The public realm has been swallowed up in the private and meditative, as if nothing but memory mattered; commemoration becomes a form of therapy.
But therapy is beside the point. The events of Sept. 11 did not arise out of natural disasters. Sept. 11 was an attack. That is why it merits public commemoration, not a pastoral meditation space.
As the photos at the Historical Society demonstrate, seeing Sept. 11 as an unjustified attack has always caused discomfort; it would require confrontation and combat. The preference for many, within hours of the "tragedy," was self-blame. A few of the photos, of course, show the kinds of reactions that have always followed acts of murder: "No mercy. Let's go to war!" proclaims one T-shirt.
But anxious protests are far more plentiful. "Peace is the answer. No fascist war," reads one poster.
"Don't turn tragedy into war" is yet another moral highlighted in one of the photos, which is strange, since we have ended up with both. In describing Sept. 11, the word tragedy has been used again and again. But tragedy implies a drama in which flawed beings are slowly drawn into their awful fate, the consequence of their all-too-human failings. Many apparently still see Sept. 11 in that light.
But an attack is something else, as later events and accumulated evidence have shown. And a reluctance to see it this way, along with the continuing problems of how Islamist terror is to be countered, is one reason why six years later we are left with many memories but no real commemoration.
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