Art and Controversy of September 11th, 2001

September 11th, 2001 has become a day immortalized in the memories of a nation. Early in the morning two planes, hijacked by a group of terrorists, crashed into the World Trade Center towers. The world watched as the two towers fell down in smoke. Although media coverage was swift to censor the events of the attacks, people everywhere can recall the frightening live broadcasts. Never before had the safety of the American people been so systematically compromised. Although terrorist attacks occurred on United States soil before, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the lives of civilians hadn’t been jeopardized like they had been on 9/11. Alongside the World Trade Center, the Pentagon was hit, and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, allegedly targeting the White House.

“No building symbolized the neoliberal world order better that the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and no building symbolizes military might in the United States better that the Pentagon. The White House, the target for the third failed attack, would have been the perfect representation of political power” (79, Bleiker).

To comprehend the intensity surrounding 9/11 countless pieces of art have been created to remember, process, and immortalize the events of the day.

The need to “Never Forget” the attacks and the people who suffered from them caused professional and amateur artists alike to make a monumental amount of art. Wherever art influenced by 9/11 appears, controversy follows. No public works are safe from the outrage of the community and reviews of the media. For the purpose of this paper I want to discuss the forms of controversy that have arisen, and examine the main tools artists have employed in their artistic endeavors. Materiality, representation, and location have taken on powerful roles in the art of 9/11, helping create deeper meaning for viewers, but also to stimulate debate.

Today, if 9/11 is mentioned everyone can immediately relate where they were, how they felt, and what impacted them the most from the events. At the National Museum of the Marine Corps these intimate memories can be shared in the temporary exhibit dedicated to the events. “The exhibit invites visitors to share their memories of the day that ushered in a ‘new reality’ for all Americans while also paying tribute to a generation that has borne the burden of our security during a decade of war” (http://www.usmcmuseum.com). A tower stands in the middle of the exhibit for visitors to place a note containing their own experiences of the attacks. The exhibit also contains building materials from both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This community of sharing and witnessing, created at the “9/11 – We Remember” exhibit, is a rare example of a successful tribute to the events. However, the majority of information presented is factual. Quotes line the walls, building materials from the attacked structures are presented plainly, and people are invited to remember in a non-confrontational way. On top of all this, the Museum of the Marine Corps is far from the streets of New York where the majority of controversy has arisen.

At the one year anniversary of the attacks, in 2002, two artists presented works attempting to remember and process the events. Eric Fischl presented his bronze statue, Tumbling Woman, at the Rockefeller Center, and Sharon Paz created a site specific installation of silhouettes at the Jamaica Center for the Arts titled Falling. Both pieces were met with waves of outcry. Tumbling Woman was not the first piece of controversial art that Fischl had made. “Two years ago, he made a 14-foot nude statue honoring Arthur Ashe, facing the stadium that bears Ashe’s name at the National Tennis Center in New York” (¶ 14, The New York Times). In an interview with the New York Times a year later Fischl explained that he had lost a friend who had worked in the Twin Towers. Tumbling Woman acted as a tribute to her memory. The sculpture is highly figurative in its representation, depicting a woman falling through the air, in a contorted pose with her legs out to her side and head tucked in. A poem was placed on a plaque nearby. It read:We watched,disbelieving and helpless, on that savage day. People we love began falling, helpless and in disbelief.

Varying reports claim that it shows the woman in free fall or hitting the ground. Regardless, the image is haunting. The work was intended to be on display outside the Rockefeller Center for multiple weeks, however it was draped in fabric and enclosed only a few days after being revealed. Civilians walking past the sculpture complained that the image was too horrific and too jarring for a public space. One person commented to the New York Times explaining, ”I don’t think it dignifies their deaths. It is very disrupting when you see it.” The Rockefeller Center had the statue removed shortly after it was covered. Fischl had five copies of the statues made and sold them to private collectors. The University of Chicago had one copy on display in their museum garden. Fischl, in a statement to the press, said “[the work] was not meant to hurt anybody” but was a “sincere expression of deepest sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition” (¶ 9, The New York Times).

Sharon Paz had a similar experience with her installation of eleven white silhouettes placed in three stories of windows at the Jamaica Center for the Arts. Her piece was also in memory of the one year anniversary and she claimed it was her way of confronting the disturbing images of people falling from the towers, (The Daily News, Bertrand). The silhouettes were taken from actual images of falling victims, such as the distinctive image of the Falling Man, made famous by photographer Richard Drew. Like Tumbling Woman, New Yorker’s were upset by the installation and it was taken down two weeks ahead of schedule with out Paz’s notification. One comment sums up the criticism that was received. “It sends out a very negative, subliminal message. It shows people dying in a horrible way and is very insensitive” (The Daily News, Bertrand). The consensus at the one year anniversary of the attacks was that is was too soon to show figurative representations of the day. Figurative versus abstract representation would continue to be a major debate for almost all pieces of work commemorating 9/11.

Figurative representations were not the only type of art created for the one year anniversary. Tribute in Light, an ephemeral memorial to the events, has been widely attributed as the most successful memorial to 9/11. The idea has been discussed as so intuitive that two groups of artists proposed the idea simultaneously. Artists John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Richard Nash Gould, Julian Laverdiere and Paul Myoda with lighting consultant Paul Marantz were all involved in the design of the piece. The project, overseen by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS Website), was originally intended to be a temporary installation while the competition for a more permanent memorial was being conducted. The piece was so widely acclaimed that it has continued throughout the decade. 2011 was designated as the last year the Tribute in Light would be shown due to the completion of the memorial at Ground Zero, Reflecting Absence, but currently the MAS website states that they are collecting donations and seeking sponsorship to install the tribute annually. The work consists of two towers of light, in the place where the towers once stood, briefly restoring the New York skyline with a ghostly image.


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Comprising eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs positioned into two 48-foot squares that echo the shape and orientation of the Twin Towers, Tribute in Light is assembled each year on a roof near the World Trade Center site. The illuminated memorial reaches 4 miles into the sky and is the strongest shaft of light ever projected from earth into the night sky. (MAS Website)


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The location of the towers, often referred to as Ground Zero, has sparked much debate. Many wished to leave the site untouched after the attacks, such as previously mentioned artist, Eric Fischl. Some individuals affected by the events claimed that leaving the site untouched would be an appropriate reminder of the drama, terror, and survival of 9/11 (The New York Times, Fischl). Others insisted that the site be rebuilt or memorialized. In the end Ground Zero was turned into the memorial that it is today. Tribute in Light was an appropriate compromise during the debate due to its ephemeral nature. However, Tribute in Light could not escape controversy either. “The light column was originally to have been called Towers of Light, but protests from victims’ families forced a name change. They felt Tribute in Light better reflected the lives rather than the property lost” (¶ 12, BBC).


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Just as spaces are charged by the attacks, so too are the materials that made up the towers. Some reminders of the towers are simply pieces from the site, such as the rebar and blocks found at the Museum for the Marine Corps. One piece of found art from the wreckage of the towers is the infamous World Trade Center Cross, found standing up right, once imminent disaster was over by New York resident Frank Silecchia. The Christian public immediately latched onto the cross as an image of hope and resurrection. It was placed temporarily outside the St. Peters Church before being moved to its permanent home in the National September 11th Memorial and Museum (ABC News, Kirpalani). The inclusion of the cross in the depths of the museum was so contentious that legal action was taken to have it removed. “A group identified as American Atheists filed a lawsuit today claiming the inclusion of the cross-shaped steel beams promotes Christianity over all other religions on public property and diminishes the civil rights of non-Christians” (ABC News, Kirpalani).The American Atheists explained that they would happily drop the lawsuit if all religions were equally identified in the museum, because not just Christians suffered in the event. However, the museum has made statements about including other religious iconography in the exhibit:

The 9/11 Memorial foundation told ABCNews.com that other religious artifacts will be included in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. A Star of David cut from WTC steel and a Bible fused to a piece of steel that was found during recovery efforts will both be on display in the same historical exhibition as the cross. A Jewish prayer shawl, donated by a victim’s family member, will be part of the museum’s memorial exhibition. (ABC News, Kirpalani)

Religion has always been a hotbed for disputes in America and the tragedy of 9/11 has not been able to escape.

Other artists have also sought to to include materials from the wreckage of the Twin Towers in their works in hopes to increase the importance due to the power the materials have inherited from the attacks. International artist Xu Bing created a conceptual art piece, entitled Where Does the Dust Itself Collect? (2004) to contemplate the effect of the attacks on the city. For the piece he collected dust from Ground Zero and the streets of Manhattan, which he then spread across the floor of a gallery with a leaf blower. The words from an untitled Buddhist poem, written by the Zen Monk Hui-neng in the 1st century CE, were traced into the fine powder (Xu Bing Studio). The poem read:The Bodhi (True Wisdom) is not like the tree; The mirror bright is nowhere shining;As there is nothing from the first,Where does the dust itself collect?

The gray film across the floor was reminiscent of the dust that covered the street of New York for weeks after, and was highly contrasted by the words which showed the pristine floor of the gallery underneath. The work captures the post-attack atmosphere of New York during the recovery efforts the city experienced. His work won multiple international prizes, including the inaugural Artes Mundi prize and the Wales International Visual Art Prize. Dust was also shown at the Sao Paolo Biennial (Xu Bing Studio).


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American artist Miya Ando created a towering sculpture for the city of London. The piece is sculpted from multiple girders that were part of a collection shipped across the world in time for the 10 year anniversary.

Draped in American flags and handled with reverence, these are the relics pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center. They have been stored in Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy Airport since the recovery operation was completed, and are now being shipped across the world for towns and cities to construct memorials in time for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The photographs of twisted heavy steel, tattered uniforms and even a smashed-up fire truck reveal with terrible poignancy the full devastation of the terrorist attacks. (Daily Mail, Roberts)

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The sculpture by Ando, After 9/11, was revealed in it temporary home of Battersea Park in London and commemorates the lives of 67 British citizens who lost their lives in the attack. Although only a small percentage of the almost 3000 victims of 9/11, the United Kingdom had the highest death toll besides the United States. Honored to have received materials from the actual trade center, British officials are still seeking the most appropriate home for the twisted structure of metallic silver and mangled, rusted iron. Ando thought the sculpture “’was a poetic way to express transformation. Not only are we having the piece stand upright in a gesture of resilience, but to create something serene and light” (Daily Mail, Gye).

Pieces of the actual World Trade Center are not the only materials that have been charged by the events. In the exhibition “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” at the International Center of Photography, curator Okwui Enwezor included German artist Hand-Peter Feldmann. Feldmann’s installation, 9/12 Frontpage (2001), utilized the front pages of over 100 newspapers from around the world of the day after the attacks, 9/12/2001. The pages are simply framed and left without translation or explanation.

Questions flood in: Why were certain pictures of the devastated Twin Towers used in certain places? Why does Osama Bin Laden’s face appear on some pages and not on others? And how is the story reported in languages we cannot read; Arabic, say, or Persian? And what could readers who didn’t read English know of our reports? (The New York Times, Cotter)


Hans-Peter Feldmann, '9-12 front page', 2001

In many ways Feldmann’s work addresses the public memory of 9/11 that has been briefly discussed here in this paper. Almost everyone today can recall their own experiences of the events, and Feldmann’s installation brings that awareness to a global level. Some critics have questioned the success of 9/12 Frontpage due to its lack of included commentary. “Do the fluttering sheets of newspaper illuminate the dark events of September 11th or do they banalize and ultimately diminish their projected impact? (29, Enwezor). Regardless of the exclusion of text the choice of material creates a statement about the attacks.

Not only have these past three pieces captured the importance of materiality in 9/11 art but they also show the international influence the events had. 9/11 cannot be remembered as only an American attack, but an event that reshaped society on a global scale. The fact that international artists, such as Feldmann and Xu Bing, are commenting on the magnitude and poignancy of the attacks shows the importance of the event. Even the materials have become international, with pieces of the buildings being shipped as far as London and beyond. These works are important because of their materiality, but they also step into the debate between abstract and figurative. Materials that are charged with significance often lend themselves to being left in a abstracted state. The sculpture by Ando and installation by Bing are strong examples of this. The sculpture by Ando does not give a literal representation of the victims, but instead tries to capture the intensity of the events through the raw form of the materials. But just as Fischl and Paz were criticized for showing too much of the drama, Ando is criticized for showing too little. It would seem that few artists have found a balance between representing the drama without becoming insensitive or grotesque.

The most poignant example of this tension between figurative and abstract is the memorial built at Ground Zero in memory of all the lives lost during the attacks, in New York and elsewhere. In 2002 the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), “a corporation formed by the Governor and Mayor to oversee the rebuilding and revitalization of Lower Manhattan” (RenewNYC.com), began a competition for the creation of the memorial for the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and in 1993. The competition was open to almost anyone, including international applicants. Over 10,000 people registered and 5,201 proposals were received by the deadline in June of 2003 (wtcsitememorial.org). The guidelines for the memorial were meticulously constructed in a booklet of 34 pages which was publicly reviewed and revised several times. The booklet included the history of the site and the attacks, the mission statement, the plans for the location of the memorial, and the jury that would oversee the applications. The level of detail put into the competition was remarkable, making sure that no one would be left out of the memorial and that the memory of the attacks would be appropriately commemorated for the public. The mission statement for the competition sums up the guidelines:

  1. Remember and honor the thousands of innocent men, women, and children murdered by terrorists in the horrific attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.

  2. Respect this place made sacred through tragic loss.

  3. Recognize the endurance of those who survived, the courage of those who risked their lives to save others, and the compassion of all who supported us in our darkest hours.

  4. May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance.  (wtcsitememorial.org)

Two stages of the competition included a first stage were all applications were reviewed, and then a second stage were eight finalists made further revisions before resubmitting their plans. The jury of 14 included artists like Maya Lin, who developed the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial in Washington DC, and a family member to victims lost in the attacks.


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Michael Arad won the competition with his design officially entitled Reflecting Absence.

This memorial proposes a space that resonates with the feelings of loss and absence that were generated by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the taking of thousands of lives on September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. (¶1, Arad)

 The proposed plan, originally inspired by the Hudson River, includes two recessed pools of water in the exact footprint of the original towers. The water flows down the sides of the pools in continuous cascading waterfalls measuring 30 feet high, and in the middle the water vanishes into a hole, reflecting the absence left by all those who were lost. The remainder of the space designated for the memorial is left as a park, for quiet contemplation. Trees and planters help create an atmosphere away from the busy environment of the city, allowing visitors to have privacy during their mourning. “The landscape architecture of Memorial Plaza was designed by Peter Walker and Partners of Berkeley, CA. and is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed. Its irrigation, storm water and pest management systems will conserve energy, water and other resources” (¶ 9, Sweet). The construction of the memorial began in 2004 and the site was unveiled at the ten year anniversary in 2011. The original plans for the memorial also included thoughts on the museum to be completed underneath the site, which is still under construction.

Despite the efforts of Arad and the LMDC to create a space that would respectfully commemorate the tragedy of 9/11 for everyone, Reflecting Absence was still plagued by controversy. The controversy sparked by Arad’s design was so substantial that some thought the memorial should be completely reworked.

Criticism arose immediately after the public unveiling of Reflecting Absence.  The day following the presentation, a local, albeit unscientific, poll showed that thirty-nine percent of New York City residents supported the statement “I don’t like it at all-they should start over. (¶ 15, Kaddy)

The placement of the victims names was the first aspect of the memorial to draw negative media attention and spark controversy among the public. In his orig