Art for the Cosmos

Paul Ford, whose weblog I’ve only recently discovered, has written a strange and difficult story, entitled Flash. The story’s narrator, a member of New York City’s hipper-than-thou tech elite, organizes a flash mob around the sculpture The Sphere by Fritz Koenig, once housed in the plaza at the World Trade Center. At precisely the moment the mob is instructed to surge towards the sculpture, a bomb planted by the narrator in the sculpture explodes:

It is like watching a flower open into the sunlight. The sculpture is the bud; the bodies suddenly falling backwards are the petals, cut open by pieces of brass, everything washed over by a wave of red and orange light. The noise you’d expect is missing, more of a pop followed by creak. A white light lingers on the screen where the flash took place, burnt into the camera’s lens, then fades. Hidden behind the ledge, I could not see, but I knew the rivets in the sculpture were flying out, that the welds used to heal the sculpture prior to its rebirth were ripped open first. Silence came, and now, to fill it, screaming.

Like I said, it’s a difficult story. I am reminded of Karlheinz Stockhausen calling the World Trade Center bombing “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” If art is supposed to make us feel, to experience viscerally the beauty and terror of life and death, to think about our place in the world, if art is supposed to shape the way we look at and experience the world, then I guess he’s right. Even something as horrible as the attack on, collapse of, and aftermath of the World Trade Center (and, as a committed Brooklynite at the time, I can testify to the literal horror I and other New Yorkers lived through those days) can, seen through the eyes of a masterful viewer, become strangely beautiful; witness the Magnum photos compiled for a show on 9/11.

Ford’s story reminds me of something else, not quite so lofty. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, my partner was discussing the events with someone who expressed regret at having “missed” the attacks — because of where she was at the time, she couldn’t see what was happening downtown. Having watched the second tower collapse from the roof of our apartment building, I can say there are few, if any, things I wish I had missed seeing more than that, but there’s more. There is, perhaps, a hunger for direct experience in these days of mediated reality delivered through television, newspapers, radio. And yet, the mediated world is the touchstone by which we assess and understand our direct experience. After 9/11, we walked around Manhattan shaking our heads and rubbing our eyes, saying to each other “It’s like being in a movie” — not in a good way. For most of us, movies and TV are the only “places” where we experience the extremes of human experience. The narrator in “Flash” witnesses his creation through his videocamera’s viewfinder. The identities of his victims are revealing as well — flash mobbing is already out of vogue, so the narrator deliberately shapes his invitation to appeal to the proudly ironic, the hip urban denizens who will respond to the idea of a flash mob as parody, wearing “their cloaks of detachment, their shields of wit and irony, three layers thick”. Those for whom the detachment and un-committed-ness of mediated reality have become icons of their very being — those who show up do so not to experience a flash mob, but to make fun of experience, to show themselves that they are above anything as plebian as experience.

Finally, Ford touches on the almost magical transformation the 9/11 attacks worked on New Yorkers themselves. Its no secret, though little remarked on, that before 2001, most New Yorkers hated the World Trade Center. Although useful as a way to determine which way was south below 23rd St., they were largely seen as ugly, imposing structures that loomed menacingly over the rest of the city, lacking the grace and style that the rest of the city has. They wouldn’t look out of place in some Midwestern capital, maybe, or in some wherehouse district. After 9/11, though, the Twin Towers were transformed in much the way Koenig’s The Sphere, the focal point of Ford’s story, is:

When they found The Sphere in the wreckage, it was filled with office chairs and pieces of airplane, dented and torn open. And many found that its oversmoothed, inoffensive brass now had a rugged depth, a rawness and emotional immediacy. Much like Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even or The Large Glass, which the artist proclaimed improved when its encasing glass cracked in transit.

In its destruction, the WTC finally took on a human element, perhaps some spirit drawn from the souls of the people who lost their lives in it and the tears shed by their survivors and witnesses. Draped with flowers, candles, photos of the missing and the dead, images and models of the Towers became iconic, transforming the spaces around them into holy ground. Like the narrator of “Flash”, people had a drive to document, to re-present their experiences and feelings, to tell stories, share photos, blog, sculpt, paint.

I almost feel bad for the architects who will end up replacing the lost Towers. No matter how they try, whatever fills that gap in the NYC skyline will be just office space, nothing more. No matter how they try, their attempts to fix the memories, emotions, experiences associated with 9/11 in concrete, bronze, marble, paint, or glass — whatever “memorial” eventually is installed in the new complex — will be a pale reflection of those Towers, hated and reviled as they were when they stood over the New York rooftops. Through the mysteries of human process, those ugly blocks of steel and glass have come to sum up everything we know, feel, and think about 9/11 and terrorism, which is a strange kind of architectural accomplishment, and one which no architect, committee, or panel is going to capture. For that kind of meaning, it takes a mob.

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