Life Goes On

New York Newsday

Is art defaming 9/11 deaths?


July 10, 2005

In Chicago, where I live, art galleries have not been shy about showing work inspired by the horror of 9/11, and we've seen everything from ordinary images taking a vaguely darker turn to actual depictions of burning towers. When Brooklyn photographer Kerry Skarbakka staged a number of jumps from the roof of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art on June 14, local media coverage was positive. Fox News' rambling interview treated his venture light-heartedly, and The Tribune's headline read: "Being a fall guy all day long."

But it's understandable that the resulting news images of a man in a business suit making a fake fall out of a city building produced anger in New York. Skarbakka had himself photographed clad in various outfits, including a suit and jeans, to produce more works for his ongoing photo series, "The Struggle to Right Oneself," in which he is seen mid-air, the harness that holds him digitally removed. Seeing his flailing figure having just fallen from a ladder that is itself tipping over, or mid-air over a staircase, or in front of a cavern, makes plausible his idea that these images express that "we live in a world that constantly tests our stability."

Two days after his performance-cum-photo shoot in Chicago (quite a crowd had gathered to watch), Skarbakka was shocked to find himself attacked in terms he never expected. He had acknowledged that images of people falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11 were a partial inspiration for the series: "I wanted to be able to respond intelligently, conceptually, responsibly to what was going on," he told the Chicago Reader before his museum jumps. Besides, he said in the Chicago Sun-Times, "falling is such a metaphor for life in general. Mentally, physically and emotionally, from day to day, we fall. Even walking is falling: You take a step, fall and catch yourself."

But in New York, the Daily News gave him front page billing with the headline, "Kick Him in the Arts." An accompanying story quoted the brother of a 9/11 victim: "My friends jumped out of buildings, and it wasn't an art form. It was a last resort."

The News quoted Gov. George Pataki as calling Skarbakka's project "an utter disgrace," and Mayor Michael Bloomberg as finding it "nauseatingly offensive."

What's really nauseating in this, and in several past art scandals, is the utter misrepresentation of what art is and what artists do.

Most artists do not reenact life but make metaphors for aspects of experience. An artist need not kill himself to evoke a "loss of control," Skarbakka's words for one of his goals. And artists usually claim multiple meanings for their work; art inspired by actual events typically goes way beyond reflecting on those events alone. That Skarbakka has done so successfully is confirmed by the fact that in three years of exhibitions, his works were not previously attacked as 9/11 rip-offs.

As he wrote in a statement after the ruckus began, "In the past few years I have fallen from trees, porches, bridges, train trestles, stairways, ladders, roofs, mountains, volcanoes, water towers, fences and billboards - without anyone ever mistaking my work for a representation of our national tragedy." Instead, a Museum of Contemporary Art curator called his falling photos a commentary on action films; Zoom Magazine saw a statement on existence as "continuous freefall."

While Skarbakka's photo shoot in Chicago was a public performance, its purpose was to produce more photographs in his series, this time framed to include spectators as well. The documentary pictures and videos that appeared in the media were the work of reporters, not Skarbakka, whose own artworks from the Chicago event are not yet finished. None of the critics who excoriated him could have seen the art they condemned, and it seems likely that some have never seen any of his photos.

So the question might be asked of the politicians: Are you not trying to win cheap points by mischaracterizing work you haven't seen?

The whole sad affair recalls Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's admission that he had never seen a Chris Ofili painting, showing the Virgin Mary but including elephant dung, that he attacked. In the traveling exhibition that included it at the Brooklyn Museum, one could see dung being used as decorative adornments in many Ofili works, establishing that in his art dung had no implications of defilement. But "dung" together with "Virgin Mary" makes for outrage-generating sound bites - not unlike the statements this time of Bloomberg and Pataki.

On June 24 the Daily News gave the politicians another shot in the art war, going after The Drawing Center, an excellent SoHo exhibition space not especially known for political art, by describing some extreme-sounding pieces shown there and quoting 9/11 survivors referring to them as "offensive," "America-bashing" and "truly the most vulgar thing I have ever seen in my entire life." The point was that such works don't belong being displayed at Ground Zero, where The Drawing Center is scheduled to move. Pataki responded, "We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America." To some self-described patriots, any criticism of America amounts to denigration. But no contemporary art space could ban all political criticism and retain credibility. Raising questions about the status quo has been one of the great missions of all forms of art for centuries.

Artists and writers began responding to 9/11 almost immediately. The New Yorker ran an affecting cover of the towers as faint shadows, and the humor newspaper The Onion printed a group of hilarious and biting articles - one described the terrorists' surprise at finding themselves not in heaven but in hell. Artists since have responded with everything from vaguely ominous works of foreboding to documents of the burning towers to pieces that do, in fact, criticize the United States.

But no serious work of visual art is ever reducible to a few words. That's why the artist made an image, rather than writing an essay - and the complexity of its diverse effects is only apparent to someone who actually views it, and perhaps takes the trouble to return to view it again.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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