The Last Column

Hal Foster on the 9/11 Museum

There is a hangar at JFK Airport – Hangar 17 – where, until recently, about 1200 pieces of steel and other objects from the World Trade Center site were warehoused. In the frenetic days after the attacks, these remains were selected as tokens of 9/11, so that they might be dispersed to memorials around the US, foremost among them the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero, which opens on the tenth anniversary of the event.[*] The clean-up of the site was as torturous – it lasted nine months – as the sorting at Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island was meticulous. In all, 1.8 million tons of rubble and debris were removed, of which the objects at the hangar comprise only a fraction of one per cent. Much of the tonnage consisted of steel columns and beams, and several of these, buckled and bent, were taken to the hangar – graphic evidence of the sheer force of the strike and subsequent collapse. Most of the material was pulverised, and no human trace is left of more than 40 per cent of the nearly 3000 victims. From the weaponised jets and the fallen towers to the remains at the hangar and the memorial museum at the site: it is a strange circle to contemplate, with grim ironies of its own, but it might bring a measure of closure to some.

Long resident in New York, the Catalan artist Francesc Torres was two blocks from the WTC when the first jet struck the north tower, and he witnessed the collapse of both buildings from his studio rooftop ten blocks away. Commissioned by the 9/11 Museum, Torres photographed the 80,000 square-foot interior of the hangar every day in April 2009. His pictures, which proceed from broad views of the hangar to close-ups of individual objects, are now gathered in a book entitled Memory Remains: 9/11 Artefacts at Hangar 17;[†] they are currently on view at the International Center for Photography in New York and the Imperial War Museum (until 26 February 2012).

It is difficult, as one looks at the photos, not to judge the remains in terms of iconic value. Already prized in this respect is ‘The Last Column’, a 37-foot piece of an interior support from the south tower, so named because it was the final object to be removed from the site. Covered with pictures of victims, badges and tags from fire and police departments, and notes and mementos from friends and relatives, the column now lies flat, supported on steel beams of its own, like an industrial version of the True Cross. (Last out of the site, it was the first thing in the 9/11 museum, which had to be constructed around the column owing to its size.) In this same semi-sacral register, there are also beams with little crosses and stars of David cut out by metalworkers for families and friends of the dead.

Most evocative of the fallen buildings are the fragments of the 360-foot antenna that once stood on top of the north tower, and most telling of the heroic response are the battered vehicles of the aid professionals who responded. Torres was moved in particular by two large blocks of material – cross-sections of four floors compressed under enormous pressure of heat and weight. What struck me were his close-ups of torched insignia, on trucks and cars, of rescuers turned victims: a blistered FDNY here, a melted AMBULANCE there. At the same time Memory Remains includes photos of things that convey the arbitrary nature of the event, such as clothes and tchotchkes from the underground mall (including an Elmer Fudd doll from the Warner Brothers shop, along with a sign that reads ‘That’s All Folks’). It turns out, as the journalist Jerry Adler writes in the book, that ‘the objects with the best odds of survival were those small enough to have lodged safely in a crevice: keys, coins and rings’; along with golf balls, these things shall inherit the earth.

In his introduction to Memory Remains, Torres notes the blurred lines, in the objects as well as in the photographs, between document and art, and some artefacts do appear almost artistic. Intentionally or not, sculptors who worked in welded steel, such as David Smith and Anthony Caro, rendered industrial production aesthetic, while others like John Chamberlain and Arman artified its debris: some of the trashed cars and smashed commodities at Hangar 17 recall the work of the latter pair. There is a further ambiguity of display: the photographs reveal an arrangement of things that is no longer forensic and not yet museological – the whole might be mistaken for a vast installation project. Then, too, there are fragments from actual art objects, such as the steel sculpture by Alexander Calder once sited in the WTC plaza; laid out on white slabs, Bent Propeller now exists in a limbo between art and ruin. (Artworks valued at $100 million were destroyed in the attacks, including an immense tapestry by Joan Miró and a wood bas-relief by Louise Nevelson.)

The contributors to Memory Remains worry about an aestheticisation of the remains. There are other troublesome issues to mull over. Early on, the skin of the Last Column, scorched and rusted, began to flake, and conservators rushed to re-attach the chips. Is that the right response to a thing whose value is in part its index of time? ‘Everything down to the smallest residue was of the utmost importance,’ Torres writes. One understands what he means, and appreciates the special care of his shoot and of the objects in general. But can this be true? Many things in the photographs seem both significant and meaningless, both relic and detritus. Here the project of the book and the mission of the museum get especially tricky. ‘They’re not sculptures. You don’t want them to be beautiful,’ Chris Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority, says of the objects. Adler agrees: ‘They are something more than beautiful. They are sacred.’ This touches on the most difficult ambiguities of all – not ‘art versus document’ so much as ‘beautiful versus sublime’ and ‘artefact versus relic’ (the last term pervades the book).

‘These events are unspeakable,’ I wrote in the LRB of 4 October 2001, ‘but they shouldn’t be left in the oppressive space of the sublime.’ Yet that is where they were immediately put and have since remained. For Americans the WTC became the world trauma center, and we were as likely to fix on the tragedy as traumatists as we were to work through it as mourners. Very quickly that trauma was turned into support for the ‘War on Terror’ – don’t victims, the lex talionis of trauma runs, have the right to be perpetrators? – and so the violence was returned with interest. Wounded, this empire aimed not only to ‘build the towers higher than before’ but also to ‘hunt the terrorists down and smoke them out’, and, in keeping with a rhetoric that bin Laden used to his advantage, it marched into battle as the Crusades come again.

In this light the talk of relics and icons, and the appearance of crosses and stars, is not so benign, for here the experience of the sublime and the traumatic is all but captured by the category of the sacred. Early on, Ground Zero was described as ‘hallowed ground’, and to this day 9/11 is often treated as an event that cannot be assimilated, which passes all human understanding. This trope tends to render the historical event a theological one, a misprision that conforms not only with the Schmittian turn in recent government (what the sovereign makes, as in law, he can unmake, as in a state of emergency) but also the theocratic bent of more than a few political leaders and presidential candidates.

Can the objects at Hangar 17 be both relics and artefacts, iconic and evidentiary? Can the National September 11 Memorial and Museum both rehearse the trauma of the day and help with its assimilation? Might a memorial and a museum be at cross-purposes in this respect? Should such questions seem academic, consider the dispute that erupted in July, not too long after the controversy about the placing of an Islamic centre near the site (which featured significantly in elections last fall). In the rubble a 17-foot beam was found that some saw as a cross and revered as such. A Franciscan priest began to hold Mass under the beam soon after 9/11, and for the last five years it has stood outside a nearby Catholic church. In July it was moved to the 9/11 museum, where it is to be part of the display, but a group called American Atheists filed a lawsuit against its inclusion. They charge that a religious symbol has no place in a museum supported by government funds, that this violates the constitution. Museum officials counter that it will be framed as a historical artifact, and that its use as a religious symbol is part of the narrative of event and aftermath that it is mandated to tell. The struggle for the American soul continues at Ground Zero.

[*] Designed by Michael Arad, the memorial occupies about half of the 16-acre WTC site and consists of two large waterfalls and reflecting pools on the footprints of the towers; Peter Walker and Partners conceived the landscape around them. The entry to the museum is a pavilion designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta; Aedas architects conceived the exhibition spaces.

[†] National Geographic, 192 pp., £30, August, 978 1 4262 0833 1.