Turning Pain into Art 

Though it may be too soon for perspective, three exhibitions help us remember and deal with 9/11.

Three current exhibitions attempt to visualize the actual terrorist attacks and their aftermath, both on literal and emotional levels. The Virginia Historical Society has two separate exhibitions in remembrance of 9/11. "September 11, 2001 in Virginia" is a show that approaches the events in a concrete manner. The curator of the show, James Kelly, has gathered materials that pertain to the attacks, the rescue effort and the public's response. A melted telephone and singed writing paper from the Pentagon are examples of the types of physical artifacts that make this show so moving.

Photographs of the 189 victims of the Pentagon attack stretch across the perimeter of one room, flanked by a video of memorial services held in Washington, D.C., and London. Interestingly, the museum has also set up a message board for viewers to use to add their own 9/11 comments. Several people have written where they were when they heard the news or saw the image of the collapsing twin towers.

Other objects on display include the artwork and memorabilia of Virginians after the events: a stained-glass panel by Joy Glasser Luna, the "Freedom Flag" design by Richard Melito, a tailgate with the ubiquitous magnetic American flag, newspaper front pages, even a dry-cleaning bag with patriotic sentiments. There is a photograph of a Dulles Airport grounds worker who, instead of waving the usual orange flag to direct incoming planes, has since 9/11 been waving an American flag for every American Airlines flight that arrives or departs during his shift.

With the international attention that 9/11 acquired, we tend to forget that our state was one of those specifically impacted by terrorism. As the curator points out, the 189 Pentagon deaths (65 on the plane and 124 in the building) totaled the largest number of persons killed in the commonwealth by hostile action since the Battle of Sayler's Creek on April 6, 1865. Based on that fact and our proximity to the Pentagon attack, it does seem especially appropriate that the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond has arranged this show.

In another room of the museum, the exhibition "Missing" reveals a different side of the tragic events. This traveling show is a collection of photographs by Martha Cooper of the spontaneous shrines and impromptu memorials that surfaced in New York City after 9/11. These are lovingly poignant shots of such gestures as a fireman's boot filled with flowers or a painted wall with the phrase "Never Forget." The curator of the exhibit, Aimee Molloy, describes Union Square Park's plaza at 14th Street in Manhattan as "a blanket of wax formed from thousands of melted candles." A continuous slide show of the New York City victims accompanies the photographs — a compelling tribute to the victims in its unsentimental straightforwardness.

Artspace also opened a show that commemorates 9/11 one year later. "Black Boxes" is a collaboration between Richmond artist Mark Shepheard and writer Deirdra McAfee. The objects they create are boxes that contain words or stories as installations. As McAfee writes, "The black boxes of their thoughts are irretrievable. Every day a jet crashes into a shining building. The secret information, the hidden data, the forgotten records. Cell-phone calls from hijacked planes, black box damaged on impact and useless." The box, then, is not only a visual object and container for thoughts, but also a metaphor for humans as closed and inscrutable, just like the lost black box of a jet. Shepheard and McAfee have responded to 9/11 conceptually through sculpture and text.

Although a year has gone by since 9/11, it is still hard to comprehend the event both on an emotional and historical level. As described on the card at the Virginia Historical Society: "The momentous event of Sept. 11, 2001, in Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania occurred one year ago, but not enough time has elapsed for a historical verdict to be given on the ultimate significance of that day and the train of events it set in motion." Nonetheless, these three exhibits can help us get our minds around the events, and that is certainly a positive step in promoting healing and perspective. S

"September 11, 2001 in Virginia" runs through Nov. 25 and "Missing" and "Black Boxes" continues until Sept. 29.


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