9/11 didn't just mark a political crisis. It was also – to borrow a favourite phrase of postmodernist theory – a crisis of representation. The rolling news reports, the endlessly repeating footage, the identical images being beamed around the world – it all felt as if the day's events were somehow unreal. At the same time, from an artistic perspective, the situation was one of such extreme trauma, such unimaginable horror, as to make any attempt at representation seem utterly feeble, redundant, even rather ghoulish.
Coinciding with the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, this exhibition by Hugh Mendes, and Francesc Torres's exhibition on the theme at The Imperial War Museum offer, not a solution exactly, but perhaps a way round the conundrum. Though they take different approaches, what the shows have in common is that neither of them directly represents the events of 9/11. Instead, they document the after-effects, the debris, the cultural residue.
Torres, quite literally, shows us the remnants. In 2009, the Spanish artist photographed Hangar 17 at New York's JFK airport, a vast space that had become a temporary repository for hundreds of artifacts salvaged from the rubble of the World Trade Center – objects deemed particularly significant or poignant by specially appointed archivists, and therefore worthy of eventual permanent exhibition in the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Projected in a slow, somber sequence, Torres's photographic tour of this pre-museum shows the pieces already organised into various, incipient categories: crushed and incinerated cars, fire engines and subway trains, for instance; dusty, damaged clothes and other consumer goods from the WTC's mall, or huge, concrete composites, where different floors were melted and mashed together. Torres's record of the objects' array is thus a catalogue of a catalogue – with this sense of distance somehow seeming to accentuate the work's lugubrious, mournful atmosphere.
There's a feeling of mournful distance to British artist Hugh Mendes's work too, with his scores of minutely detailed, trompe l'oeil paintings, all depicting clippings of newspaper reports – representations of representations, essentially – made over the course of ten years. 9/11 is a constant touchstone – inadvertently so, initially, in that Mendes's MA graduation exhibition, featuring a painting of Bin Laden, simply happened to fall on the same day. Following that piece the events and themes proliferate: headlines about the Iraq war, inevitably, but also obituaries about more tangential figures: Brian Haw, the anti-war demonstrator; Charlton Heston; the composer Henryk Górecki.
Mendes's archive includes instances where 9/11 gets barely mentioned; or where it functions as metaphor (Wikileaks described as Obama's 'diplomatic 9/11'), or where it clashes incongruously with nearby stories ('Gap year student eaten by crocodile'). The sense is of the meaning and significance of that momentous day constantly expanding, infiltrating the rest of the world – even as Mendes himself, with his laborious, meticulous photorealist style, seems intent on somehow slowing down the ever-accelerating news cycle.
Which is why, then, it's slightly disappointing to come across a wall pinned with hundreds of real newspaper pages from the days following 9/11. There's a corresponding display in Torres's exhibition, too: a huge section of metalwork from the Twin Towers, warped and twisted like plasticine. The idea, in each case, is presumably to evoke some sort of communal, commemorative feeling – to act, in short, as a memorial. Yet the unfortunate effect is to make the works of art, by contrast, appear somehow derivative, as if they need to be anchored within the reality to really make sense.