I wrote my second year dissertation about Maya Ando’s After 9/11, a memorial to the events of September 11, 2001, which stood in Battersea Park. The memorial’s sad, somewhat twisted fate intrigued me, see, not even a year after the colossal statue was erected, it was taken down and put into storage. The reason’s behind this are incredibly indicative of the way we view memorials in today’s society.
With the anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, it seems a good time to further explore the reasons behind the removal of this memorial from the public sphere. Here is a edited (and much shortened) version of my dissertation.
Ando’s After 9/11 is a three-storey tall sculpture, made from three steel girders that were once part of the World Trade Center, memorializing the destruction in New York and the other events of September 11, 2001. The artist hoped that the artwork would serve as an educational tool in helping students understand the events of 9/11.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sought proposals from public and city agencies and not-for-profit groups who wished to acquire a piece of the steel for public display. It had been intended to stand outside theGreater London Authority building near Tower Bridge, however the necessary permissions could not be acquired. It was moved to its temporary location in Battersea Park, until a permanent site could be decided on. The London Borough of Wandsworth granted it only a temporary license so that it could be unveiled in conjunction with the ten-year anniversary of September 11, 2001. According to a council spokesman, they had to ‘step in at the last minute as there was nowhere else for it to go… had [they] not made an offer, it would have remained locked in a warehouse in Liverpool.’ However, a mere month after its unveiling, this enormous sculpture was unceremoniously removed from the park, following complaints from a support group for victims’ families, and the breakdown of negotiations over where to display it. To this day, it remains in storage, still waiting for its permanent display location.
The question remains: what was the reason for such animosity and disapproval from the public? What about it singled it out from the many other memorials that have been created all over the world in the decade after 9/11 to make it the object of hatred and even disgust? The answers lie in the construction of the memorial itself, its production technique and materials as well as its form of display.
Memorials are becoming increasingly important as a desire to remember and anxiety about forgetting in the West becomes ever more prevalent. The obsessive desire to memorialize is driven by debates about national self-definition and purpose, and is shaped by the affective and emotional conditions of public life, with such feelings as grief, gratitude, fear and anger, all of which play a role in the reaction to and commemoration of 9/11. The obsession with making memorials has rocketed, particularly in the late twentieth century, when both commemorative and celebratory memorials were being created at an astonishing rate. This ‘memorial mania,’ a term coined by Erika Doss in her 2010 book, grips America, and indeed much of the Western world. The events of September 11th resulted in a desperate attempt to understand what had happened and why, and these feelings were manifested by various memorials across the country.
One of the earliest memorials to the World Trade Center was found amongst the rubble, and may prove to be informative when analyzing Ando’s sculpture. Iron girders from the Twin Towers fell in the shape of a cross, and, so it has been claimed, became a symbol of hope for the community in the aftermath of the tragedy. Two days after the disaster, Frank Silecchia, a construction worker, discovered several perfectly-formed crosses standing upright amid the mounds of mangled steel and rubble. Silechhia was reported as saying of discovering the crosses: “it helped me heal the burden of my despair and gave me closure on the whole catastrophe.” These crosses became pilgrimage sites for people who had lost loved ones, both Christian, who interpreted the clear Christian symbolism in the iron, and otherwise, who saw the crosses as purely a secular symbol of hope.
A comparison of Ando’s sculpture with the iron girder crosses may help to be to show why the former was met with such animosity. There are many obvious similarities between the two, most notably the materials of their construction. Both are made of the same iron girders that were once a part of the Twin Towers themselves, however, what differs is the circumstances, and indeed method of their creation. The crosses were completely spontaneous, created purely by the falling buildings, allowing them to be perceived by some people as a miraculous creation. Ando’s sculpture was clearly a premeditated and planned out piece of artwork. What people found very offensive about this work was the way it seemed to almost mimic or replicate the mangled pieces building in the aftermath of the attack, when it was reduced to a pile of rubble. The crosses were seen as a symbol of the nation rising above the tragedy; Ando’s sculpture reduced it back to the base, raw result of the destruction.
Arguably the main reason for the controversy surrounding Ando’s sculpture is its use of ‘genuine materials’- materials that came from the World Trade Centre itself. In the aftermath of the attacks in 2001, a huge cleanup operation was staged, which involved salvaging as much of the metal from the towers as was possible, with the idea of using it in memorial construction. According to the Port Authority of New York, girders much like the ones used by Ando, were sent to every US state to be used as they saw fit, as well as a number of European countries. Serving as an even more poignant comparisonwith Ando’s sculpture is the use of the very same steel in Grosvenor Square: the steel was buried in the 9/11 memorial garden, under a plaque bearing the poem For Katarina’s Sun Dial by American poet Henry van Dyke; nearby are three more plaques, listing those victims with British connections. This is a vastly different use of the steel than Ando’s: it is unassuming and hidden away, having almost been laid to rest, allowing people to remember the attacks in their own way. According to The Washington Times, Ando’s pieces of steel served only as a painful reminder of the destruction they caused on September 11. The fire commissioner of New York at the time of the attacks, Thomas Von Essen, was one such person who struggled with Ando’s memorial: ‘’I look at it, and I don’t see beauty, I see pain, I see steel that destroyed a lot of lives.” Alex Clarke, chairwoman of the September 11 UK Families support group, asked “does London really need this? …we have a piece of the girder buried under Grosvenor Square, that’s where it should be.”This group was set up as a way to help families of victims work through their grief, organizing memorial services, ceremonies and concerts, and was the main oppositional force behind the removal of the sculpture. Hannah Ali, another member of the group, disapproves of the memorial, claiming that she was dismayed at the thought of turning pieces of steel that “had bodies strewn on them” into a work of art.
Perhaps one of the reasons the British public was so unable, or even unwilling, to try and understand Ando’s sculpture lies with cultural differences and the different approaches to memorialization in the West as opposed to the East. Ando cites her Japanese heritage and upbringing as a major influence in her work, claiming that as ‘a descendant of Bizen sword maker Ando Yoshiro Masakatsu… raised among sword smiths-turned Buddhist priests in a Buddhist temple in Okayama, Japan, [her] spiritual, familial, and academic experiences deeply inform every aspect of my work.’ She is playing on a sense of spirituality and transcendence that is present in Buddhist funerary tradition, evoking the reverence and compassion she learnt in Buddhist temples. Ando sanded down the steel to reveal a shiny, mirror like surface, which would provide a locus for calm reflection, yet retained the shape of the girders, presenting them in a ‘pure and honest manner.’ There is a notion of ‘Migaku,’ or polishing in Japanese, playing on the idea that one can polish and refine one’s spirit. Perhaps, through polishing the steel, Ando was hoping to refine the event, helping people to heal. Evidently, this memorial can present a very powerful message to those who know how to interpret it. This perhaps led to a lack of understanding, as it suggests a very elitist target audience for the piece, serving only to alienate those it should have supported most.
To me, it seems that Ando’s intention with After 9/11 was a good one- she hoped that her use of World Trade Center steel would serve as a sort of symbol of rejuvenation and a place of quiet reflection and contemplation. However, equally, it is not difficult to understand the reasons behind the negative reaction. To a grieving Western audience, the concepts of Ando’s sculpture could indeed seem very alien: it does not name the victims, or give any indication of the event, aspects which are very common on traditional memorials. People, especially those who had lost someone in the attacks, wanted something to remember, and even glorify, the lives of the victims, not a reminder of ultimately what killed them. This case serves to highlight the difficulties of memorializing disaster in contemporary culture, and the vast impact even a small opposition group can have on the way art in the public domain is viewed, mediated and received, particularly when those opposing it feel as though they have a legitimate claim to the act of memorialization.