September 11 “Tribute in Light” Commemorates the Wrong Thing

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Tribute in Light
Photo Credit: John Heppolette via Flickr

Once again this year, in honor of the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack, the public art project called “Tribute in Light” lit up the sky near the site where the Twin Towers once stood. The two square shafts of blue light rising from the ground create the spectral shape of the erstwhile skyscrapers and then continue upward into the sky, beyond where the eye can see. It is a dramatic, even beautiful memorial that was first on view in the spring of 2002 and has marked the date of the disaster every year since 2003.

It’s almost as wondrous and arresting as when the Luxor Las Vegas hotel and casino shined their own hyper-bright column of light into space. First.

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Despite that admittedly cheap jab at the tribute-notwithstanding the fact that the Luxor actually did display their very similar light installation years earlier-it is a popular and successful public art memorial. Part of me does like it very much and does think it’s an appropriate gesture for the anniversary. At the same time, though, there are some awkward and unsettling aspects of the project that make it difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), the steward of the tribute, calls it “one of the most powerful and healing works of public art ever produced.” That takes it a little far; the hyperbole is a bit strained. “Healing” is simply not what Tribute in Light is about.

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In fact, it’s a little too slick-a perfect gestalt spectacle visible for miles and miles. It’s a literally incandescent sign for itself: the Times Square of memorials to horrific sociopolitical events. The showy aesthetic of the tribute almost asks for corporate sponsorship; we have the Bank of America Stadium, the Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks over the Hudson River, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, why not the Halliburton Tribute in Light™? (The tribute is set to be turned over to the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. For now, the MAS uses its website as a fundraiser, and no one is talking about selling naming rights.)

Reuters Tribute in Light
Reuters photo by Gary Hershorn

Central to my problems with Tribute in Light is the unshakable sense that it memorializes the wrong thing. The endless, vertical shafts of light come off as phallic manifestations of an unfortunate sentiment I’ll characterize as “America, Fuck Yeah!” The power and reach of the lights suggests a vague sense of them shining all the way up to heaven. I suspect this pleases many people, but the combination of heaven-icity and nationalist chauvinism is also pretty distasteful. There is a Reuters photo (left) of the tribute, glowing off through the top of the frame, amidst the Statue of Liberty and the under-construction One World Trade Center, lit up in red, white and blue. It’s a majestic, effective image, but what it communicates is jingoism porn.

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That the tribute is also cool and distancing, that it produces that “America, Fuck Yeah!” feeling, does not make it conducive to unexpected emotional or social epiphanies or catharses. Indeed, it’s a feel-good gesture. Yet the September 11 terrorist attack represents an unspeakable sadness for the families of those who were killed, and an outrageous, multifaceted policy failure for the country. It represents the failure of the American imperialist impulse, the failure of national security and executive leadership and the failure of basic humanity on the part of both American Iraq-war advocates and black-site dungeon torturers.

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That a litany of depressing, tragic and compounding failures has been wrapped in a heroic and transcendent memorial is, at best, ironic. More precisely, it’s propaganda; it triumphantly dismisses responses to the terrorist attack that could lead to better critical thinking about civil liberties or about the consequences of American imperialism.

When it was first devised in 2002, the project was going to be called “Towers of Light.” The families of the victims of the attack complained and had the name changed to “Tribute in Light” because they felt the original name commemorated architecture rather than people. What ended up happening, though, is that the tribute still focuses on the destroyed buildings to the exclusion of the victims-there’s not even a general sense of the human tragedy. And the revised name makes the project sound like a Thomas Kinkade memorial.

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Tribute in Light Base
Photo via MAS
Photo Credit: Ryan Budhu

The key to the communicative and aesthetic success of the tribute is, in fact, the minimalist design of the Twin Towers themselves. Like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, the Twin Towers rose vertically in a straight line from bottom to top, without the setbacks characteristic of most of New York’s skyscrapers. The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, for example, both narrow as they rise to allow light to reach the surrounding streets (and because zoning required it). Neither of those buildings could be evoked so perfectly by lights shining straight up from the ground. In this sense, Tribute in Light is the perfect memorial to 9/11-“9/11” as a brand. The metonymy of the incorporeal, geometrical Towers standing in for everything associated with what happened on that day has the effect of euphemism. It erases what is messy and upsetting and difficult in exchange for a tribute that is easy to grasp. Those two shafts of light obscure everything that actually matters about September 11, 2001.

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