At P.S. 1, an exhibit that lets the viewer learn how viewing has changed since Sept. 11

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Cardiff's installation at P.S. 1, in 2001. ()
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Alex Seedman

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At MOMA P.S. 1, two gray benches are arranged parallel to each other in the center of a white room, surrounded by 40 small black speakers on stands. Janet Cardiff's popular installation, 40-Part Motet, begins with mundane sounds—muted coughs reverberate around the room, but are they a part of the installation? Or just the sounds of the members of the press in the quiet room, where they'd been led on a tour in advance of the opening of the exhibit, titled "September 11," tomorrow?

Suddenly, a large operatic voice boomed from one of the speakers as the Salisbury Cathedral Choir stirred to sing the opening notes of 16th-century British composer Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Alium," written for 40 parts, each coming from one of the speakers.

A tired-seeming woman who had gone for one of the benches seemed shocked by the sudden loud voice, which then was joined by a soprano from another part of the room, then an ensemble of altos, then the thin vocals of little girls and boys and basses and tenors and all these sounds fell together and filled the room with a sad and beautiful music; a classical piece evocative of an event that will follow four centuries later. 

Cardiff's piece has a place in the history of New York's response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Installed in October of that year but contrived and planned before the events of that day, the large hall where its continuous 14-minute loop of coughing and mundane sounds followed by 12 minutes of the beautiful music became a popular place of refuge and reflection for New Yorkers and tourists who came to the city in the chaotic aftermath of the attack.

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That a piece that served that function organically 10 years ago should become explicitly a part of the museum's response to the 10th anniversary of the attack makes it an exception, for the most part. Some of the art presented with the exhibit was made half a century ago, and the majority of it before September of 2001. There have been a variety of artistic interpretations of and responses to Sept. 11 over the past ten years that have offered new perspective; many were blamed for exploiting the attacks to rake in cash or awards and few were praised for portraying that morning with sensitivity and truth. I expect P.S. 1’s exhibit will become an example of the latter.

And it opens on the same day as the official 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center site, a place where the mission is entirely different: To contrive works and exhibits that inform and/or console. Likely, the city needs both.

After about an hour of touring the show, reporters and critics were invited to take a tour of it with curator Peter Eleey.

“I was emailed a poem that [W.H.] Auden wrote”—here Eleey seemed to stop for a moment as the faint coughing sounds from the adjoining room started up again—"when Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939. There’s a great line: ‘An odor of death offends the September night.’ 

"There are these things that seem to come uncannily out of the past and into the present in the condition of grief that 9/11 created,” Eleey said. Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, he said, “evoked the very personal aspects of the tragedy and their sublimation into national tragedy.”

"Spem in alium," was, according to some scholars, composed to commemorate a birthday of Queen Elizabeth; but just as Edward Elgar’s "Pomp and Circumstance" wasn’t written to be played at high-school graduations, the Tallis piece, or Cardiff's interpretation of it, has taken on a new context. Herein lies the brilliance of the exhibit: The union of the pieces incites a uniquely emotional and intellectual response by framing this work in the theme of September 11, 2001.

The brilliance is really in the curation. Eleey largely avoids work that seeks to address the tragedy directly, paradoxically making the work he presents address the event more powerfully, and more personally. We would stop short if we saw a work that we could not ourselves connect to the events of Sept. 11—if, say, suddenly Edward Hopper's Nighthawks made an appearance. But what could wall-text add to the inevitable association, in the context of an exhibit titled "September 11," of George Segal's 1998 sculpture Woman on a Park Bench, bronze but with a white patina that evokes the images of ash-covered evacuees making their way from the smoking debris of Lower Manhattan that day? (There were as yet no little placards on the pieces, though Eleey said there will be.) The work, in this context, presents itself as a meditation on Sept. 11 that doesn't require mediation.

“This is one of the last wrap sculptures Christo made,” Eleey explained, pointing to a large, red bag filled with—something. Eleey went on to explain that this wrap sculpture was just a prototype for an unfinished project in Chicago and that Christo often experimented with wrapping. My ugly daydream of death—of a body-bag—faded and I was left with an historical understanding of an artist. It's probably a sign of the success of the exhibit that the explanations actually remove the object from any productive context rather than placing it there. 

The photograph of a woman's hand reaching for a cocktail on the tray table of her airplane seat, clear blue sky outside the small plastic window, is a William Eggleston, made long before you might look at it imagining this woman's plane, enroute to Los Angeles from Boston, might streak headlong through crystalline blue sky into the World Trade Center tower; her comfort and complacency was not about to be destroyed, along with her whole self.

Eleey explained that the bulletin board void of posts was taken from a college campus in 1977. I saw a gray mosaic of posters begging for missing sons and daughters and fathers and mothers to be returned to their families.

As you round a certain corner past Cardiff’s Motet, you gain a view of the skyline where something is missing that was there.

The view is not, officially, a part of the exhibit.