For better or for worse, it seems that an act of terror – the attacks on the World Trade Center, September 11 2001 – remains the most pictured, and most viewed, event in photography's history. Responses to that morning in Manhattan constitute the centrepiece of the recently published The Uncanny Familiar – Images of Terror, a collection of work by practitioners such as Thomas Ruff, Robert Boyd, Michael Kosakowski, Christoph Draeger, Fiorenza Menini and more, alongside scholarly essays from writers including Fred Ritchin, Clement Cheroux and Gerhard Paul.
© Thomas Ruff
Obviously, notable attempts have already been made to survey the depth and extent of the immediate recordings of the attack – the Here is New York project, for instance, received donations from thousands of participants, and was visited by hundreds of thousands more. Further, the journalistic coverage of 9/11 has been the subject of numerous, detailed analyses. But in comparative terms, the work of visual artists dealing directly with 9/11 has been somewhat unexplored. The Uncanny Familiar goes some way to redressing the balance.
© Thomas Ruff
Of necessity - in most cases - it is only by proxy that many of this collection's artists can address 9/11's imagery. So Thomas Ruff, for example (though he was in the city that day) uses found images of the Twin Towers, and enlarges them to the point where they foreground their pixellated structures. Robert Boyd's video installation Xanadu (2006) juxtaposes news footage of the burning World Trade Center with MTV-style clips and 1970's disco music. Michal Kosakowski's Just Like the Movies compiles a selection of the Towers' earlier and apparently not infrequent appearances in mainstream films, as if to confirm John Updike's observation, (made from a 10th floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights): ‘As we watched the second tower burst into ballooning flame […] there persisted the notion that, as on television, this was not quite real.' More provocatively, Christoph Draeger has re-presented newspaper photographs of the aftermath at Ground Zero, but printed now in the form of jigsaw puzzles.
© Thomas Ruff
In a sense, despite the multiple, stark differences from the immediacy and inclusivity of the demotic, anti-hierarchical Here is New York, such artistic appropriations might share a similar impulse with that 2001 project. Michael Shulan, one of the organisers of the earlier show commented at the time that ‘In order to come to grips with all of the imagery that was haunting us, it was essential, we thought, to reclaim it from the media.’ Though it pursues divergent lines of enquiry, much of the work in Images of Terror could be described as a further reclamation, of sorts.
© Thomas Ruff
But whereas Here is New York functioned as memorial, testimony, and community rallying point, the Uncanny's pillaging of the photographic past becomes a multifaceted enquiry into the means of representing, addressing, or commodifying, terror... in all its contradictions. After all, what kind of imagery could be adequate to events when, as Jonathan Frantzen noted, ‘Besides the horror and sadness of what you were watching, you might also have felt […] an awed appreciation of the visual spectacle it produced'? Frantzen's honesty – his 'awed appreciation' – is revealing: and maybe it sheds light on these latterday artworks. The jigsaws and 70's soundtracks, the references to cinematic fiction, the obtrusive pixellations are all means of withstanding awe and its corollary, fear – the currency unit of terrorism. No mean achievement, given the circumstances. For despite all the dumbly predictable blather about retaliatory "shock and awe" that followed - once the President found his voice, that is - there has been nothing to match what James Nachtwey described as 'the sheer magnitude [...] the unreality, the horror, the futility, the insane, evil brilliance of the attack and the plain fact that it succeeded.'
The Uncanny Familiar: Images of Terror
Essays by Aleida Assmann, Friedrich von Borries, Clement Cheroux, Felix Hoffmann
publ. Walther Konig