“Welcome to Hell” is fingered into the snow-covered windshield of a Honda Civic parked on a wintry New York street, except the ‘snow’ is actually ashes – the ashes of 5,000 people murdered on Sept. 11.
“Here is New York” – the Santa Monica exhibition of over 300 photos thematically centered on the events of Sept. 11 – is drawing so well that gallery organizers want to push the early Dec. 8 closing date back to mid-January. Subtitled “A Democracy of Photographs,” the exhibit features powerful amateur and professional images that humanize the tragedy, sobering the viewer as they reward him or her with a deeper sense of compassion. Part of a larger, New York-based exhibit raising money for children of World Trade Center victims, Here is New York sells $25 prints of the photos in its Berkeley, Santa Monica and New York galleries.
The walls of the spacious, high-ceilinged Track 16 Gallery (Bergamot Station Arts Center, Bldg. C-1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica) are lined with the unframed prints, which hang by two clips attached to a thin steel wire. The lack of framing demands viewer intimacy, while simultaneously commenting on our lack of historical framing for the terror. Row after row of hanging prints sway slightly in the gallery breeze like the nation’s dirty laundry set out to dry.
Any voyeuristic guilt about viewing the sometimes horrific, sometimes hopeful scenes is assuaged by a deeper, human understanding of New York’s sorrow. Three thousand miles of continent afford West Coasters an emotional distance from the terrorism, but “Here is New York” collapses this distance and the images strike the viewer as too familiar. The photos of the makeshift shrines look like Isla Vista’s post-Attias grief process. A newly minted widow holds up a sign saying “missing,” but it is more of a caption on her soul than a definition of her dead husband.
The exhibit’s visceral power lies in the stillness of the media. Lurching and fiery debris is paused in mid-collapse. A big, burly fireman’s lip is caught in an awkward muscular twitch of total sorrow. Unlike television, the horror is temporally trapped. It provides the viewer no other channel options or a commercial break from the eyes of New Yorkers on that day in time. The still image concentrates on the object, not the action. “Here Is New York” showcases everyday objects transformed and infused with meaning by their trip through hell.
An old businessman – beyond shock and covered in dust – lights up a cigarette in a tribute to normalcy. The silhouette of a hot-bodied woman stares out from her patio doorway while she talks on the phone. It could be a sexy underwear ad, except in the distance the Trade Centers burn and the shadow of an arm – holding palm to forehead – coveys her total disbelief. It is the everyday life disrupted, not the monuments shattered, that humanizes the tragedy.
“The causes and effects of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 are by no means clear, and will not be for a very long time,” says the “Here is New York” statement. “What is clear though, is this: In order to restore our sense of equilibrium as a nation, as a city, and particularly as a community, we need to develop a new way of looking at and thinking about history, as well as a way of making sense of all the images which continue to haunt us.”
Sometimes the “making sense” is as simple as photographically framing a crucifix from the jagged intersection of a blown out window frame. Sometimes it’s snapping a wall of mournful poetry centered around, “Even in our sleep/ pain which cannot forget/ falls drop by drop/ upon the heart/ until in our own despair comes wisdom / through the awful grace of God – Aeschylus.”
The Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica is free of charge and open Tuesday through Sunday, 11a.m. to 6 p.m. Closing date is currently Sept. 8. Call (310) 264-4678 for more info.