It’s hard to write about 9/11 without sounding glib. The brutality and enormity of that day’s events are so profound that little can match their intensity. So this exhibition of art made in the wake of the most shocking terrorist attack on Western soil sets itself a bit of an impossible task.
The show takes you on a journey from the event itself through to the shellshocked days that followed, onwards to the heightened security that came in its wake and then its horrible international repercussions.
You’re greeted by Hans-Peter Feldmann’s collection of newspaper front pages from the next day, Iván Navarro’s neon light boxes depicting the Twin Towers in reverse come next, plunging forever into the ground. Two pillars of dead Nazis are the Chapman brothers’ characteristically subtle take on it, followed by a marble security camera by Ai Weiwei. There are paintings of torture by Rachel Howard followed by a video of Lida Abdul whitewashing the destroyed Afghan presidential palace, and maps by Walid Siti and Hanaa Malallah showing the destruction of their home countries. This isn’t really a show about terrorism, it’s about living in terrorism’s shadow, and it’s exhausting.
You’re left with a sense of perpetual and unstoppable violence, ceaseless cycles of action and reaction. 9/11 --> the war in Afghanistan --> the invasion of Iraq --> the 7/7 bombings and on and on and on.
Still, it leaves you a little cold. Maybe that says more about how fatigued by these horrifying events we have become than any failings of the artists.
There are two problems here, though: one is that nothing can match the impact of the real thing. The events of 9/11 were so horrifying, and their documentation so comprehensive, that art about them can barely scratch the surface. The second problem is that 9/11 changed everything. All art is made in its wake, in societies entirely shaped by that day and its repercussions. We don’t have any art made now that isn’t made, somehow, in the shadow of 9/11 and what it led to. The attacks, the constant violence, the surveillance, the lurch towards the right: all triggered by 9/11. They could have included almost anyone and seen their work through the prism of that day. As a result, the show manages to be both too broad and not specific enough. An impossible task.