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Three Ways to Look Back, None Easy

September 11, 2011
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Many people assured us that we would never forget, and they were right. The attacks of Sept. 11 were the most extensively witnessed and recorded events in history, a spectacle, as the hijackers intended. The towers exploding against the crystalline blue sky, the white dust cascading, the panicked office workers — these are all seared in collective memory.

Paul Taggart for The New York Times

A sculpture by George Segal overlooks a scatter piece by Roger Hiorns made from an atomized jet engine in “September 11,” an exhibition at MoMA PS1. More Photos »        

But in New York City right now it is possible to choose among several very different ways to remember. The exhibitions mounted to commemorate Sept. 11 and its fitful, excruciating aftermath vary tremendously in scope and effect. Three in particular — at the School of Visual Arts, the International Center of Photography and MoMA PS1 — form an unexpectedly illuminating progression.

Taken together, these shows proceed from raw, inchoate data, to documentarylike orchestrations of evidence, to art. The sequence is surprisingly consoling, even though its culmination — “September 11,” the elegiac, supple exhibition at PS1 — contains little art that pertains specifically to Sept. 11.

The shows both stir and soothe very different kinds of pain and awareness, calling forth an intense and confusing panoply of emotions while also reassuring us about human persistence and art’s sustaining power.

The most visceral experience of the day’s murderousness is provided by “Here Is New York: Revisited” at the School of Visual Arts’s Westside Gallery. It reprises the impromptu exhibition of images of the attack and its aftermath taken by both professional and amateur photographers that sprang up in two small storefronts in SoHo in the days after Sept. 11. That show was an early example of crowd sourcing; its original subtitle was “A Democracy of Photographs.”

About 300 of some 6,500 images ultimately submitted to this project are presented here, clipped, as they originally were, to wires strung along and sometimes between walls, a little like laundry hanging out to dry. Jumping around in time and space, they form a kind of heart-wrenching Cubism.

One picture shows the second plane hitting the south tower — just barely touching it, almost like a kiss. Others show people being rescued, holding one another, weeping, running for their lives. We see the plaza at Union Square covered with comments in chalk, anticipating the immense shrines of candles, photographs and memorabilia (also pictured) that would accumulate.

A monitor shows part of a documentary about the original exhibition. We hear from its organizers, from people who contributed photographs and from those who lined up around the block to see them.

“People will look at these pictures as long as people look at pictures,” one man says. These voices, and views of the low-ceilinged spaces dense with visitors and images, convey some of the wounded openness of the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

“Remembering 9/11” at the International Center of Photography turns more completely to the aftermath. Organized by Carol Squiers, a curator at the center, it presents five groups of images that are self-sufficient archives, shows within the show. There is a selection of images from “Here Is New York” here, too, some of them the same, although they seem more subdued without the documentary accompaniment.

Read more at: 9/11 Exhibitions Rekindle Grief in 3 Ways

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