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Monday, April 01, 2002

Arts & Letters


Aristidis, Kouros Gallery, New York City, February 13-March 23

The events of September 11, 2001, are indelibly etched into the collective awareness of the American people. It is not my purpose to comment on the political implications of the World Trade Center attack. Nonetheless, it is important to understand how New York City, as much a center for artists as it is a financial center, has seen fit to portray the tragedy. Exhibitions such as Reactions, at Exit Art in downtown New York, not so far from Ground Zero, have demonstrated the truly national character of America’s response to the Twin Towers’ destruction. Thousands of responses, visual and literary, were sent on 8 1/2 x 11-inch sheets of paper, in accordance with the gallery’s requirements. The range of reactions to the attack ran the gamut of emotions: fear, rage, and incredulity among them. Sometimes the quality of the art was quite high; at other times, it was amateurish. Even so, however, the general implications of the messages were clear: September 11 was something that would never leave the psyche of America, which has not, until this time, experienced terror and destruction of such magnitude at the hands of terrorists.

Given the worldwide recognition of what happened, its representation in art has been problematic, in the sense that the original function of the imagery was essentially documentary – however striking, and even beautiful, the fires and billowing smoke were when recorded by cameras for newspapers, television, and film, the purpose of the image was easily understood as a definition of destructiveness and an expression of reality. Art – the imagined, as opposed to the literal, image – exists as a different kind of category; it imagines reality as though it were real. Instead of the image meaning exactly what it says, in this case the Twin Towers’ annihilation, it intimates all manner of influence and contextual suggestion. This means that, in regard to intent, imaginative presentations of historical experience must necessarily be different from what can be called the real thing. Actual history usually presupposes a different response, and despite attempts to literalize the metaphor – for example, Warhol’s eight-hour film made, in real time, of a person sleeping – we generally expect of art that it transform a theme through the imaginative treatment of materials. In other words, art remains primarily a metaphorical activity.

But what happens when such activity is applied to the representation of documented reality? What happens when the strengths of imagemaking are aligned with a historic event? The particular conundrum of contemporary art’s response to the events of September 11 is that the actual occurrences were so loaded, both visually and metaphorically, that the literalized presentation of what took place moved past a purely journalistic treatment toward an artistic rendering made more moving and powerful by the actuality portrayed. As a result, the language of art served the language of journalism, in such a way that both were given emphasis. This is, of course, not the first time that such a thing has happened; however, the intensity of representation is extraordinarily high, so much so that the camera’s documentary presence is subsumed by the overwhelmingly visual power of what it found. I do not at all mean by such comments that September 11 was essentially an esthetic event – it will remain in most people’s thoughts as a day of unprovoked aggression; its picturing, however, was overwhelming for visual as well as moral reasons.

Photographs, of course, were the primary way people remembered the date. To record a tragedy is to gain some means of control over the emotions associated with it, even as it happens. It may not be sensitive, in light of those killed or maimed, to say that one picture is formally stronger than another. (Is the record of violence supposed to be regarded, categorically speaking, as an opportunity for something like formal concerns?) This is an issue for which no answer is completely acceptable, although efforts of certain artists beg the question. In his show at Kouros Gallery, the Greek-born, now New York-based photographer Aristidis exhibited platinum palladium prints of handmade and hand-coated paper; all the photographs, with one exception, were made in 2001 and 2002, during and after the disaster at the World Trade Center. Technically, the pictures were stunning; they had a slightly worn, silvery aura to them – the result of the materials used. Aristidis did outstanding work demonstrating the actual violence on the day it happened, but he also characterized the effort people made afterward; comprising only 19 works, the show nevertheless had a comprehensive feel.

Aristidis’s presentation of September 11 is tremendously visual; he captures, as it takes place, the tonal distinctions of the billowing smoke emanating from the Twin Towers. In the diptych, Untitled Number 6 (The Fall of the Tower), the left panel shows a tilting cloud-column of smoke, angling up toward the left, in the midst of downtown business buildings, with a thin slice of water pictured in the image’s sharp foreground. In the right panel, Aristidis seems to have come closer to his subject; in the foreground, one can make out the masts of a boat, while the clouds of smoke dominate the central portion of the image. It is a scene whose dramatic quality recalls epic literature – one thinks of Dante’s hell, among other scenarios. In Untitled Number 2 (Woolworth Building), the dark smoke surrounds the white Woolworth Building, a thick mass hovering above its well-known architecture. It is a devastating scene that offers no hope – its emotionalism is intensified by our knowledge of what occurred. Transformation Number 1 (The Smoke-Filled City) is also overpowering in its expression; thick, cumulus-like clouds sit on top of lower Manhattan’s skyline, the differing heights of the buildings making them look like tombstones.

No grisly scenes are shot, but the absence of blood and body parts does not mean that the tragedy is passed over. One of the most moving pieces in the show is Aristidis’s Shrine for the Victims, which has three lit votive candles in the foreground, nearly surrounded by packets of flowers wrapped in plastic. The general disarray of the shrine is all the more moving because it suggests the spontaneous expression of feeling – it is clear that New York City did what it could to heal those personally involved with what happened. Another diptych is just as strong; entitled Chanting for Peace, Relief Workers, it shows, on the left, Asian monks chanting in response to the event, while, on the right, two workmen wearing reflective vests, their backs turned to us, make their way along an improvised barricade. The juxtaposition of persons who under other circumstances would likely have little to do with each other is a moving tribute to the ethnic and racial democracy that is New York.

Untitled Number 3 (The Ruins) shows the facade of one of the towers, eerily empty behind its thinly clad surface. The powerful tonal variations, ranging from black to gray to white, make the image nearly theatrical in its exposure to the vicissitudes of politics. Aristidis is a strong photographer, someone who knows how to impress his audience. Yet, that is not the point, of course; we are meant first to react visually and then to grimly acknowledge the deadly nature of the assault. His images approach the condition of art, yet function as journalism, and the combination results in work that strikingly serves a double function – being true to its subject while rendering metaphorical its perception. This dual achievement happens rarely in documentary art, but Aristidis has accomplished it, documenting a world that is fearsome without fear. The show is memorable for its directness and integrity.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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