It seems impossible: a dynamic, thought-provoking art show about the terrorist attacks on New York that’s likely to offend no one. Yet Peter Eleey, curator of the exhibition “September 11” at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens, may have pulled off just that.
With pieces as varied as a hulking sculpture made of scrap metal by the artist John Chamberlain and the photograph of a stray piece of newspaper by Diane Arbus, the exhibition aims to address the memory of 9/11 while sidestepping explicit visual representations of the twin towers or the day itself.
Eleey, dressed in a light-blue checked shirt and jeans, sat with me in the courtyard of PS1 to discuss the show.
Tarmy: How did you begin to approach an art exhibit about 9/11?
Eleey: I started thinking about it around the second anniversary, when I opened the New York Times and encountered a piece by the artist Ellsworth Kelly.
He proposed that Ground Zero should be a mound of grass, just an abstract field covering this site of trauma. It resonated as the beginning of how one could look at 9/11 through the frame of art.
Tarmy: How does this exhibit contribute to the discourse surrounding the attacks?
Eleey: I hope this show helps us to think about the impact of 9/11 on our cultural collective imagination: If you were in a bar a couple of months after Sept. 11, and you saw two cups next to each other, you saw the towers. We saw echoes of them everywhere.
Tarmy: How did you choose what went into the show?
Eleey: It is a very personal selection of work. It’s not in any way an authoritative show about the attacks or the events.
It’s more a way of thinking about it differently through a range of art that evokes images from that day.
Tarmy: As you put the exhibition together, did you feel beholden to any specific people or groups?
Eleey: I understood my responsibility to be first and foremost respectful to those who were directly affected by the attacks.
But beyond that it became difficult to think about -- there are too many people who own different aspects of 9/11, and there was no way that I could be responsible for all of them. And so I didn’t try.
Tarmy: Other than the Kelly piece, why didn’t you include any art specifically about 9/11?
Eleey: There hasn’t been, for me, a lot of significant art made about 9/11. Of course, one can point to the fact that an awful lot of the art made in the last decade is 9/11 art in some ways.
Probably the biggest difficulty that 9/11 poses to art, at least to visual art, is contained in the “spectacularity” of the attacks themselves. Images were an extension of the terrorists’ violence. So how do you deal with visual art when the visual itself was part of the weapons deployed?
Tarmy: Do you think this is a political exhibition?
Eleey: I don’t know if you can do anything about Sept. 11 without it being political. My personal politics are something that the show doesn’t engage or necessarily communicate, nor am I interested in making a show that communicates a specific political position.
Tarmy: You don’t think it’s sympathetic to one particular way of perceiving the Sept. 11 attacks?
Eleey: I guess the audience will have to judge that. It’s not what I was interested in. I want to expand the ways that we can think and talk about it.
Tarmy: Could this exhibition be shown anywhere in the country?
Eleey: It’s a show, for me, that is focused on New York City. It would have a different kind of resonance somewhere other than New York.
Tarmy: Are you happy with the way that the show came together?
Eleey: I really don’t get to experience my own shows until a couple of weeks after they open, so ask me then. I’ve made choices that I thought a lot about, and I hope they’ll connect with the broader public.
“September 11” runs at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, Queens, from Sept. 11 to Jan. 9. Information: +1-718-784-2084; http://ps1.org.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)