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Brooklyn Artists Face New Audience
Post- September 11
By Sarah Gilbert

A 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 movies.

"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 American warships.

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 people.

"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 condition.

"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 art."

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.

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 11."

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

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