It is common to hear it said that we live today in a world of images, where the volumes of photographs that are produced each day do as much to confound our attempts to understand things as they actually serve to enlighten us. There was certainly a strong sense of this torrent of imagery at the Rencontres d’Arles Festival in the South of France this year, which overflowed with exhibitions, many of which were exhaustingly enormous. The sight of so many huge shows had me wondering whether the practice of some curators has unwittingly come to reflect this abundancy of photography in the world, with exhibitions growing ever larger in response. As viewers are we so used to gorging on the masses of imagery avaliable online that we are simply no longer satisfied with small selections of the images, or is it the need for such careful curation in fact more essential than ever?
With these thoughts already playing on my mind one particular exhibition at the festival had a particular impact on me. Nothing but Blue Skies which has been curated by Mélanie Bellue and Arles festival director Sam Stourdzé considers artistic responses to the attacks of September 11th 2001. Without necessarily accepting the often repeated claim that this was ‘the day that changed everything’ these attacks undeniably acted as a form of a watershed, making unavoidably clear some of the changes which had been brewing over the previous decade. One of those changes was a recognition that the prophesied ‘end of history’ anticipated by the collapse of Soviet communism had not occurred, that ideological war continued albeit in a new form, one where conventional media are at risk of becoming the unwitting mouthpieces of the competing armed factions. The other obvious sense in which 9/11 was a key marker was as a moment where it became evident how ubiquitous digital photographic imaging had become, that cameras existed in the pockets of so many of the bystanders who watched these attacks, and that photography was indeed an essential part of their effect, in magnifying the sense of terror that the attacks created to a profound degree.
As if to reflect this idea of the magnification of terror, Nothing but Blue Skies opens with a room plastered from floor to ceiling with newspaper front pages from the day after the attacks, which have been collected and rephotographed by Hans-Peter Feldmann as the series 9/12 Front Page. Global headlines scream of a ‘World under attack’, an ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘40,000 dead’ accompanied by photographs of the towers at different stages of the attack, from moments after the impact of the first plane into the north tower through to it’s final collapse an hour and a half later. This display is simple but remarkably powerful, both a reminder of the diverse media responses that follow in the wake of any atrocity, but also hinting more darkly at the ways that the media themselves unwittingly became complicit in carrying the shock wave of terror out across the world from its epicenter in Manhattan. In the mass replication of images of the burning towers we see evidence of an attack intended to be an irrepressible spectacle and pyschic trauma as much as a strategic or material blow.
A similar display follows in the next room, but uses audio-visuals as its medium. Guillaume Chamahian’s Breaking News consists of a babel like tower of televisions which visitors can crawl into, within which they are bombarded with global news reports from the day of the attacks. Panicked reporters and newscasters yell over footage of planes hitting the twin towers or sit uncertainly in their television studios, unsure of what they are witnessing or how to respond to it. A sculptural theme continues throughout the show, in the same room is Mounir Fatmi’s piece Save Manhattan 2, a model cityscape made of VHS cassettes roughly laid out like New York’s central island. The black innards of these tapes spill out onto the floor around the sculpture like the cloud of dust that was left behind following the collapse of the twin towers. Like many in the exhibition this work also seems to speak to the rapid onwards evolution of electronic and digital media, which has left the often grainy and pixelated imagery of the attacks looking increasingly date-able as products of the first decade of mass digital imagery.
Proceeding deeper into the show the works become more meditative, more about picking through the psychic ruins to ask how these attacks could have happened, what they might mean, and how to move forward. Waalid Raad’s series Cotton Under my Feet is a response to the artist’s inability to remember the colour of the sky on the day of the attacks, a cold blue which has become in many ways as iconic as the image of the towers themselves. His response has been to collect images of the New York skyline before digitally cutting away at them, removing everything in the image but the blue of the sky. In the crude digital cutting there is a strange violence, with jagged pixelated edges hinting at what is no longer there. In some cases what has been removed is clearly identifiable as the outline of a building, in some cases of the twin towers themselves, and in one image towards the end of the series the white outline of an plane recalls the moment before a second airliner hit the south World Trade Center tower, a moment frozen by a thousand waiting lenses.
Continuing this theme of analysis is the final piece in the show, Michal Kosakowski’s video installation Just Like the Movies. In this piece, short clips from Hollywood movies including American Psycho, Wall Street, Die Hard, Independence Day, Marathon Man and many others are montaged together into an approximate narrative of the day of the attacks, set against movie music which ebbs from the inappropriately jaunty to the overly tragic. While the images on screen are fictions which bear no true relation to the destruction of the World Trade Centre, they combine in their new sequence with the prior knowledge of these events held in the viewer’s mind to create a compelling narrative which at moments becomes remarkably difficult to watch. Underlying it is a sophisticated commentary on US culture, and the country’s strange fascination with the fiction of it’s own demise played out in disaster movies, an inclination which Jean Baudrillard described as a need to ‘exorcise through images’. Kosakowski hints at the idea that on some level these attacks fitted with a dark narrative which runs back deep into the country’s history and which would run forwards from September 11th into some of the worst excesses of the War on Terror.
In each space the artistic works are accompanied by short texts by Jean Paul Curnier which stand alone on plinths and consider different aspects of the reporting, processing and memorialisation of 9/11. The inclusion of these texts rather seemed to me to hint at the idea that these images of the burning towers remain so powerful that even after their processing by artists and photographers they can not comfortably be left alone to ‘speak for themselves’ and still require further context and exploration to be made safe. Overall, what makes this exhibition so compelling and thought provoking is that rather than confronting a viewer with dozens, or hundreds of images on the same theme, it does what we are rarely asked to do today, that is to essentially consider one image over and over, from multiple angles and from different perspectives. And what better candidate for this consideration than an image surely seared indelibly into the memory of all who have seen it.