Brooklyn Artists Face New Audience
Post- September 11
By Sarah Gilbert
piece by Christoph Draeger
The Roebling Hall art gallery in the Williamsburg neighborhood
of Brooklyn was preparing for its newest show by local artist
Christoph Draeger when New York City was attacked on September
11. The directors' first thought was that the show, most
definitely, must not go on.
The show featured an apocalyptic installation by Draeger.
The gallery's wooden floor was covered in sand, and a burnt-out
camper was placed in the center of the room. Inside the
camper, which was totally destroyed, was a TV monitor, showing
image after image of catastrophe and disaster. The postcard
invitation for the exhibition showed its title: "If
You Lived Here You Would be Dead Now."
At the time, the artist and the directors were afraid the
show would no longer be received with the same light-hearted
irony they had intended, and that the wrecked camper would
be a painful reminder of the devastation in downtown Manhattan
rather than a playful question about the nature of contemporary
art. "It smelled the same as ground zero, practically,"
said Joel Beck, one of the gallery's directors.
They delayed the show for several days, but it went ahead
as originally planned, except for its new title: "Ode
to a sad song."
Draeger, a 36-year-old Swiss native who has lived in Brooklyn
for nine years, has for the last decade produced installations
and video art that explore themes of disaster and destruction.
He describes his work as conceptual art, and wants to draw
attention to the ways in which images of natural disasters
and large-scale accidents are consumed as entertainment
by viewers of the nightly news and fans of Hollywood action
"I'm trying to make the point that as long as we're
not affected by disaster there's a kind of coldness and
almost an enthusiasm towards those issues, because they're
definitely less boring than our everyday lives," said
Draeger. "And they're spectacular."
But disaster became part of everyday life for New Yorkers
on September 11. While many of Williamsburg's artists are
slowly responding to those catastrophic events through their
work, Draeger is one of at least two local artists who are
dealing with the sudden realization that while their work
hasn't changed, its meaning for most audiences has.
In nearby Greenpoint, sculptor Marsha Pels creates work
in crystal that memorializes the disaster of the Holocaust.
Her work is different from Draeger's in almost every respect,
but like his, it has taken on a new layer of meaning in
post-September 11 New York.
Her show, "The Hitler Vitrines," which ran through
last December at Williamsburg's Schroeder-Romero Gallery,
was full of haunting images that, while pointing explicitly
to the WWII disaster, carried echoes of September 11. One
sculpture features a cast crystal WWII gas mask, displayed
in a scientific glass and steel cabinet, along with a beautifully
fragile pair of human lungs made of blown crystal. The menacing
visage of the mask and the delicacy and purity of the lungs
are an instant reminder of the anthrax letters that were
posted in the weeks following the World Trade Center attacks.
Pels can see why her sculptures remind people of what the
city has suffered. "These things are beautiful and
fragile, and could be gone in a minute," she said.
The new resonance of work dealing with disaster and suffering
wasn't only felt in New York. At the Palm Beach Institute
of Contemporary Art in Florida, a group exhibition featuring
86 Brooklyn artists included another of Draeger's installations:
"Crash." A 10-minute piece of video art made from
found footage, the work features one plane crash after another.
Many are shots of crash tests done in the 1970s, with real
remote-control airplanes plunging to the ground, edited
in quick succession with crash scenes from blockbuster movies
and archival WWII footage showing kamikaze planes attacking
On the morning of September 11, a gallery worker switched
the tape off. "People thought that was very close to
the issue of suicide bombers attacking the World Trade Center,"
Draeger explained, "so they thought it was obnoxious
to show this installation, which I thought was one of those
typical but understandable human overreactions."
It was the gallery director who decided to turn it back
on later that day. "He said, 'Well it's not the first
time that an artist has had a premonition or vision',"
Draeger laughed. "That's almost as ridiculous as shutting
it down! I don't have any prophetic visions or anything
- it's just that disaster happens, and I made it an issue
in my work."
Draeger expects the impact of September 11 to filter into
his work at some stage, and while he acknowledges that,
for now, his audience may view his work differently, he
has no plans to alter his own approach. And he doesn't think
the audience's shock will last.
"The fact is that people cannot be in an emotional
state of emergency forever," he said. "September
11 goes into the background just like any event - even now
people are living with much more ease and getting used to
the fact of what happened."
Marsha Pels feels differently. Her art gives expression
to an emotional state of emergency that has been sustained
through three generations of her father's family. Pels,
50, works with crystal to create works that preserve her
family's Holocaust memory. Her father's German Jewish parents
were killed by the Nazis, and while her father never spoke
of it, Pels has sought her history out and it now informs
all her work.
Pels had been working on the Hitler Vitrines sculptures
for more than a year prior to September 11, with no idea
of the new resonance they would come to possess. She intended
them only as works about the Holocaust, and she uses crystal
to refer to Kristallnacht - the night Nazis broke the windows
of Jewish shop fronts throughout Germany. While Draeger's
work has increased its shock capacity since September 11,
Pels thinks hers has become more accessible and meaningful
"For me, the only thing I could be happy about is
that my vision might be more accepted now," she said.
Her vision is that of an artist who regards herself as
the preserver of collective memory - a role that is eschewed
by artists like Draeger. "I've always believed that's
art's purpose," said Pels, "but that had been
considered old-fashioned." She now hopes that more
artists will turn away from self-referential conceptual
art and begin to produce work that deals with the human
"There was a lot of work in the city that was ridiculously
stupid and postmodern," she said. "The contemporary
art world has been particularly silly and insipid over the
last few years. It's not about social issues. It's art about
Clifford Chanin, president of the Legacy Project, a New
York-based research project that examines the way artists
react to disaster, agrees. "I don't think that kind
of self-referential work goes far enough in allowing people
to filter these broader influences into the artwork they
see," he said.
The Legacy Project seeks to establish a cross-cultural
discussion on the enduring consequences of human tragedies
in recent history by looking at common threads in the language
of loss across art forms, cultures, and generations. "Collectively,
the work of artists represents a source of consolation and
community for societies that are struggling with an effort
to memorialize or remember an historical trauma," said
Chanin said some contemporary art had a tendency to navel-gaze,
and he hopes that might shift. "This crisis, both the
September 11 attacks and the fighting that's happening now
in Afghanistan, ask us to reach beyond ourselves,"
he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if artists are drawn
outwards rather than inwards by what happened on September
While both Draeger and Pels, in different ways, produce
work that refers to events in the real world, neither has
yet found a way to respond directly to September 11. Chanin
said it will take time for artists to absorb the impact
of September 11 and draw creative inspiration from it. However,
many in the Williamsburg art scene have been struck by how
much unrelated art seems to take on new meaning post-September
11. In January, a show called "Phoenix, NY" opened
at the Parker's Box gallery. The intent of the exhibit,
director Alun Williams said, was to allow local artists
to display their works within this new context.
"All art is political, and what people make is going
to change because of the situation," Williams said.
"If art is good, then it tends to deal with our times.
It's amazing that so much art made before seems to be dealing
with the American situation in the light of the tragedy
anyway." Williams referred to Draeger's apocalyptic
visions, as well as to the work of Michael Richards, an
artist who worked in a studio on the 90th floor of one of
the twin towers, and was killed when they were attacked.
He had made a sculpture of himself dressed as a World War
II fighter pilot. It was a Saint Sebastian figure, but instead
of the arrows that usually pierce the body of the martyr,
Richards' figure was punctured with tiny airplanes.
Draeger is skeptical of the way Richards has been celebrated
by some of his colleagues since his death in the attacks.
"The art world is as hypocritical as the rest of society,"
he said. "They are so happy that this happened because
now they have someone to mourn." He said the artists
who worked in the World Trade Center are being celebrated
for their survival and Richards is being honored as a visionary
whose work somehow foretold his fate. "He is definitely
a martyr for art," Draeger said. "I think that's
all ridiculous actually. Before, nobody even cared about
his art - now everybody's just like 'Oh, my God, we lost
the second Van Gogh!"
Draeger looks set to maintain his ironic smirk in the wake
of the tragedy. He thinks the disaster will filter into
his work eventually, but he's not sure how. He is preparing
for an upcoming exhibition in Turin, Italy, where he will
show another installation, "Apocalypso Place,"
which features a destroyed apartment with a sitcom projected
onto the wall, where characters are arranged in a living
room that is also a smashed-up disaster scene. They speak
cheerful lines from advertisements, oblivious to their bleak
surroundings, while they watch a newscast - screened in
the installation on a television monitor - featuring one
disaster after another.
"I'm even thinking of updating the Apolcalypso Place
newscast with some of the recent developments, and getting
the newscaster to talk about the World Trade Center,"
Draeger said. He realizes it's controversial, but he doesn't
expect an Italian audience to be as sensitive as a local
one might be.
Meanwhile, Pels is working on a large public sculpture
that is to be set in her grandparents' town of Emden in
northwest Germany as a Holocaust memorial. She is designing
a huge crystal synagogue that will be placed next to the
town's concrete bunker. She hopes her fellow artists will
think carefully about the kind of memorial New York needs
to mark the former site of the World Trade Center, and in
doing so, rethink their role as artists in society.
"We've been living in a dream world," she said.
"We can't live there anymore."
-- Sarah Gilbert