Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11
Imperial War Museum
26 October 2017 – 28 May 2018
Review by Rowland Bagnall
Making my way through the Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, I realized that I could still hear Tony Oursler’s documentary ‘9/11’ (2001) playing on a continuous loop near the entrance doors, filling the gallery with a now-familiar soundtrack of sudden emergency: muffled shouts and sirens, engines and cries, the occasional scream. Oursler’s film, a grainy, first-hand account of the September 11th attacks and their immediate aftermath, is the first work you encounter at the exhibition, the museum’s largest showing of contemporary art to date. Recording the events from his apartment and the streets immediately surrounding the World Trade Center, what’s striking about the film is not so much its content – difficult as much of the footage still is to watch, despite the jarring realization that the imagery has come to feel almost generic – but rather Oursler’s decision to begin filming at all, betraying his sense that what was happening would later need to be re-viewed, that it was something to be catalogued and archived, even in the moment of its occurrence. In other words, the film appears to reveal Oursler’s sense of taking part in ‘History’, of experiencing it in real-time, present and unmediated.
The same compulsion to respond accounts for several other artworks in the exhibition, as in Hans-Peter Feldmann’s curatorial ‘9/12 Front Page’ (2001), which brings together the front pages of several dozen national and international newspapers – requested by Feldmann from his friends across the world – revealing not only the shared visual language of the attacks, but the speed at which events are shaped into an image of themselves. Grayson Perry seems to also have experienced an impulse to react. Reviewing Age of Terror for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones is unconvinced by ‘Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001’ (2001): ‘The fact that Grayson Perry went into his studio the day after […] and added cartoon planes to the pot he was working on tells us nothing about terrorism’. And yet, Jones misses the significance of the vase in question; namely, that it exists as the glazed-and-fired record of Perry’s sense of needing to do something rather than nothing. Part of what Sanna Moore’s exhibition attempts to encapsulate, I think, is how the impact of that event, this century’s terrifyingly spectacular inauguration ceremony, has revealed a staying power such that – even where it bears no direct relation – it seems to colour much of what has happened since. As Jones himself puts it, ‘we just can’t seem to get 9/11 out of our minds’.
Beyond this, Jones’s article is largely unfavourable, arguing that exhibition ends up making ‘grand claims about contemporary history that it fails to prove’. Jones seems to mainly take issue with a lack of coherency that the exhibition doesn’t appear to be striving for. If there is something that unites the work, however, it’s perhaps what Susan Sontag offers towards the end of her 1965 essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’. ‘Ours is indeed an age of extremity,’ she writes, for ‘we live under [the] continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror’. This strange duality recurs through many of the exhibition’s works, from Trevor Paglen’s photograph ‘Untitled (Reaper Drone)’ (2010), which forces us to search a bright and seemingly empty sky to find the speck which constitutes a military UAV, to Jitish Kallat’s ‘Circadian Rhyme 1’ (2012 - 2013), in which a string of cartoonish figurines are subjected to the mundanity of an airport security search, inviting us to think about the atrocities that these checks are in place to prevent. Even Coco Fusco’s curiously watchable film, ‘Operation Atropos’ (2006), seems to reveal the truth of Sontag’s claim, as a group of female students undergo a series of immersive interrogation simulations, dividing their time between the banality of imprisonment and the intensities of cross-examination.
However, the exhibition is not without its problems. The compulsion of artists to respond to certain events as they unfold, as exemplified by Oursler, Feldmann, Perry, and others, raises unavoidable questions concerning the relationship between aesthetics and morality. It’s difficult to say why some of the pieces on display fall short of the mark where others manage not to, but there’s something about the nature of these events – from the attacks on September 11th to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East – that tends to make the artworks feel unsatisfying, as if they’re not sure what exactly they’re trying to address. This has to do with Oursler’s sense of being caught in History, of trying to shape the present into something fixed, like trying to stop the ripples on the surface of a lake. Perhaps, this is why Gerhard Richter’s ‘September’ (2005) strikes me as coming closest to a resolution of some kind. A small, quiet painting, verging on abstraction, Richter’s recognizable soft-focus is countered by the bold marks of his squeegee. The painting offers us someone else’s hazy memory, only half-recognizable, obscured by its own medium, while at the same time seeming on the verge of coming fully into focus. Insisting on a lack of clarity, however, Richter appears to acknowledge the unresolved status of this future history. It is a shame – though one that almost feels appropriate – that his painting is represented by a high-resolution digital print.