New Group Exhibition at NJCU Looks Back at 9/11 and its Aftermath

The visual spectacle of 9/11 is branded to our collection consciousness: the commercial jets slamming into the towers; the men and women plummeting from the sky; the imploding towers; the mass exodus of people; the plume of smoke encasing lower Manhattan; the horizontal pillars of ash bleeding across the skyline.

As we approach the 10-year anniversary, art exhibitions dedicated to exploring the event, its aftermath and its ramifications are being unveiled in gallery spaces all over the metro area. New Jersey City University (NJCU) this week opened its wide-ranging group show commemorating the anniversary, AFTERWARDS and FORWARD.

The show features work by 18 international artists, including several pieces on loan from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Some of the work was created immediately after 9/11, while other works were created later, as 9/11 gave way to threat levels, the “War on Terror” and several ongoing international military interventions. NJCU says the works on display represent three themes: artistic responses to 9/11, artistic responses to the “War on Terror,” and artworks made to promote peace.

“I think the Tribute in Light, conceived and executed by a group of artists and architects, has been one of the most eloquent memorial pieces done on the subject and has had an enormous impact,” NJCU director of galleries Midori Yoshimoto says of the famed annual light installation in Lower Manhattan. “Along the line of the meditative memorial, [we] wanted to provide another opportunity for contemplation on campus for students, faculty, staff, the Jersey City community and beyond.”

Works in the show include Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, an interactive installation that invites people to write down a wish on a piece of paper and tie it to a tree branch; Joel Meyerowitz’s nighttime photograph of a still-smoldering World Trade Center; Chee Wang Ng’s table shrine that includes a bowl of rice, two chopsticks, and prayer candles; and Carole A. Feurman’s elegiac sculpture of a bronze globe cut in half.

Yoshimoto, who is also an associate professor of art history at NJCU, recently told us more about the exhibition.

Where were you on 9/11?

I was still finishing my doctoral program in Art History at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and was working part-time as a curatorial assistant at the Zimmerli Art Museum. I heard the first news in the museum office, but all we could see was on internet and I couldn’t quite believe it right away.

9/11 has been explored in novels, plays, and movies. However, the subject has yet to be widely explored in contemporary art or contemporary galleries and museums. Why do you think this is?

I think there was a sort of unspoken admonition for artists not to portray the event directly since the imagery — of the twin towers in smoke, for example — was so hurtful to many.

I recently heard that composer Steve Reich had to change his new CD cover, WTC 9/11, from an image of the second plane heading towards smoldering towers to something that won’t directly adress 9/11 visually. This incident reveals that there is still a taboo, at least among New York metropolitan area artists, to make a direct visual reference to the attack, whereas memorial tributes to 9/11 in other forms have been more or less welcomed.

Indirect tributes using sounds and images that pre-dated 9/11 and representations of the recovery efforts have been valued, while direct visual representations of the attack and death have been deemed inappropriate. The situation may slowly change as we pass the 10-year anniversary this year.

How long has NJCU’s exhibition been in the works, and what was your role in it?

The idea of this exhibition grew among my colleagues, including NJCU president Carlos Hernandez, over the last semester. They’ve worked as a group to select artists and make recommendations and I also made a few recommendations. Beyond that, my role has been coordinating logistical aspects, such as collecting images and texts for the catalog, shipping artworks, and installing them in the gallery.

I imagine organizing an exhibition about 9/11 demands a great deal of empathy and forethought. What was your greatest responsibility in participating in an exhibition of this nature? Can you walk us through the exhibition process?

I felt great responsibility of organizing such an important exhibition in a relatively short period of time. As it was almost impossible for me alone to do this project, I’m glad that my colleagues participated in the process. All decisions were made at the committee meetings and there were some disagreements among members. Of course, it sometimes took a long time to come to an agreement, but I appreciated the group work: everybody brought in his/her perspective and recommendation of artists. This way, I think we were able to include not only local artists, but also the internationally renown and artists from far away regions such as France and Jordan.

Why is NJCU particularly suited to host this exhibition?

As the city right across from the lower Manhattan, Jersey City served as the primary base for aid, support, search/rescue, and cleanup in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. We also lost some members of the NJCU community through the event. Our president felt compelled to do something commemorative and faculty members — not only in art, but also in other areas of humanities — have responded to organize related events during the week of September 12.

What works of art do you find most interesting in the show, and why?

They are all different, and have different focuses. As I was rereading the catalog, I realize that two artworks use collage technique, but for different ends, for example. Richard Buntzen’s collage, made of newsprints published in the days following 9/11, makes us question of the fact we find beauty even in images from tragic events. Milton Rosa-Ortiz’s uses WTC debris to depict a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil on light boxes, which has taken on a moralistic tone reflecting on the repeated violence in the history of humanities.

What do you hope the viewer takes away from the show?

I don’t have any particular hope, but it’d be nice if viewers can find even just one artwork that can personally speak to them and make them think of larger pictures beyond what we see everyday.

THE DETAILS

AFTERWARDS and FORWARD: A Ten-Year 9/11 Reflective Art Exhibition; at the Visual Arts Gallery at New Jersey City University; 2039 JFK Boulevard; August 29 through September 27. Opening reception: Monday, September 12 from 4:30 to 7:30 pm.

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at brendanscottcarroll.com.