Sept. 11 Narrative Emerges In Art


Sept. 9, 2011

by Jared Bowen

Robin Williams and Arian Moayad are seen in the Broadway play Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo, a celebrated play about the Iraq War. It's just one example of the artistic explorations of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath. (Courtesy)

BOSTON — The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened just at the dawn of a new arts season. It’s a time when museums launch major exhibitions and theaters re-open with big, splashy fall shows. Dancers return from summer hiatus, stretching relaxed muscles and their hopes for the year ahead. But when the towers fell, so did enthusiasm.
Peter DuBois, Artistic Director of the Huntington Theater Company was running a theater in Alaska on Sept. 11. His company was in the final days of rehearsals for the drama Proof.
“I remember that feeling of kind of being immobilized, so I think we took two or three performances off and then we decided to just move forward,” he said. “And then on the dark nights we would just host these facilitated conversations in the theater which I think was really cathartic for everybody.”
Jose Mateo, the founder of Jose Mateo Ballet Theater in Cambridge also noticed that his performances were drawing a community — especially since he’d just moved his dance company out of what he calls a “very regulated” concert hall and into a more intimate cabaret space where audiences could interact.
“Theater has that mandate to engage, so we have to ask ourselves how do we engage people and what are the conversations we engage them in,” Mateo asks. “I think Sept. 11 was a rude, rude awakening but has had that very positive effect of making many people in our industry aware that we have to do things differently.”
Museum of Fine Arts Senior Contemporary Art Curator Jen Mergel witnessed a surge in patrons in the days after Sept. 11 at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover where she was then working. But she says the response from visual was much less immediate. “To respond to that event visually I think is a huge challenge and actually has taken time, has taken years in fact for many artists to consider an event that can be responded to in anything more than simply a cathartic or therapeutic way,” Mergel said. 
But they have responded, Mergel says. She cites the 2008 Whitney Biennial as a benchmark — when curators and critics alike realized that so much of the famed New York art show seemed to have a dark shadow cast over it. “I believe there is, since 2006, 2008 with enough distance, a noticeable tenor of some contemporary art that is unafraid to be perhaps moody, maybe darker, unafraid to not simply be superficial or glitzy, but to take on something that may be hard or complex or tragic,” Mergel said.
At his ballet theater, Mateo choreographs all of his productions. Thinking back on it, he says his work also changed after Sept. 11. He choreographed more around personal themes, like how we relate to one another.
“This idea that humanity really is one is something we grow up hearing about, but I don’t know that we question often enough how honestly are we living it,” Mateo said. Both he and DuBois liken the impact of the terrorist attacks to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s — another event that profoundly changed an entire population. 
“It was almost ten years after the AIDS crisis that we got Angels in America,” DuBois said, referring to the seminal Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner. He says it’s taken playwrights almost as long to respond to the terrorist attacks.
“9/11 changed so much of how we move through our lives in terms of our personal privacy, in terms of just incredible trauma to our spirits and our psyches and the war, the sort of legacy of it and the ongoing horror of it all,” DuBois said. “We’re still trying to figure out how to respond to it and be with it in the world.”
One way has been to concentrate on Sept. 11’s fall-out — namely, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the attacks triggered. This year saw the celebrated and searing play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoostarring Robin Williams on Broadway. And two years ago, the Public Theater staged the Christopher Durang satire Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.“That was the first major comedy to come out of 9/11,” DuBois said. “It’s a wonderful, brutal piece of writing. He was so angry with the media’s complicity in the war in Iraq.”
And when the Museum of Fine Arts opens its massive new contemporary art wing this month, it too will be populated by the legacy of 9/11. “We have considered a huge range of work to present to our audiences and yes some of it does include reference to the political, reference to loss, reference to absence or pain,” Mergel said.
Among the works is a piece called Bockscar by Matthew Day Jackson which is a painting of the cockpit of a plane made not of paint, but of black, charred wood. “You see the pilot steering column, you see the controls in the pilot’s cockpit and through the windshield.  Instead of paint you see glowing pastel Formica,” Mergel explained. An image of a plane hovering over an explosion, Bockscaractually has no relation to the morning of Sept. 11. Rather, Bockscar is the name of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Nagasaki in World War II. It’s the ripples of a trauma six decades ago still being contemplated on the canvas.


Bockscar, 2010 Matthew Day Jackson. Burned wood and formica on wood panel. Robert L. Beal and Enid L. Beal and Bruce A. Beal Acquisition Fund. Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York. (Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)  

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