In Memoriam

As any New Yorker knows, the divisions run deep in the fight surrounding the monument to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The victims' relatives, developers, politicians, and interest groups have clashed over their different visions for a memorial to those who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Forgoing this battle, local artist Jonathan Zalben has devised his own eloquent monument to 9/11. His, however, is constructed entirely of sound and light. Zalben's homage, WTC, consists of an art instillation of interactive video, which is motion controlled, and a multimedia performance. The performance segment is actually made up of three separate short pieces—Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, and WTC—that tie three separate attacks on Americans into a trilogy. The first two segments serve to remind us of the prolonged global conflicts that the attacks brought, as does the third, ominously.

The first piece responds to the sinking of the Lusitania, the British passenger ship traveling between New York City and England that was torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War I. Nearly 200 Americans were killed, and the sinking is often viewed as the catalyst for America's entry into the war. Zalben, standing in front of a video projection, plays a violin, accompanied by cello and flute, as a string of repeated images are projected onto the screen.

When the music begins, the still images appear. They are photographs of the boat and of the voyage. Each image appears slowly; colorful shapes merge until they become whole, revealing a snapshot from the past where moments before there was digital chaos. Each image blips on and off the screen like a poorly received TV signal. They materialize for a brief moment of lucidity and then dissolve again into flickers, with the elements of abstract shapes and color again taking over. In a way, the images remind us of remembrance itself and the unreliable way in which a memory comes and goes.

As the flutist walks around the room, standing at times behind the audience, she plays in time with the cello and the violin, building to a slow crescendo. As the three come together, the swell creates a cathartic moment of great beauty, the music abating as the images, ever fleeting and always changing, allude to the ephemeral quality of even our greatest marvels of engineering and ingenuity.

The second piece, Pearl Harbor, reflects on that national tragedy and its aftermath. In this piece the projection is footage from World War II. The most poignant of these clips shows a young man, an American soldier, as he lies down in what appears to be the bottom of a boat. Brooding, he stares intently into the camera, straight through the decades that separate him from us. But like the images from the first piece, his visage quickly disintegrates into an abstract, digital blur.

These first two segments offer the best of Zalben's multimedia art. They build quickly, then fade away. They are ephemeral and haunting, and they evoke the past without over-sentimentalizing it. They achieve the opposite effect of what visual media usually do with the past; instead of making it seem closer to us, they make it seem further away.

The last piece, WTC itself, is different from the previous two. The still images of the wreckage of the Trade Center appear in vibrant colors, with sharp contrasts between light and dark. They appear to be superimposed—in an effect that makes it look as if the photos of the WTC are ripped—over an American flag. The suggestion seems to be that despite the attacks on this country, America continues on. During the segment, Zalben's eloquent violin music is projected from tape. This piece, as well, features modern dance: a single dancer under a sheet slowly writhes across the floor, although the dance seems a bit disconnected from the rest of the segment.

It's clear that Zalben's project was immaculately, almost hyper-neurotically, planned out. He researched the archival images, wrote the music, and even created the software that so compellingly picks apart pictures from the past. Obviously, he has spent a good deal of time and effort on this worthy project.

Critic Walter Benjamin reminds us that "every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." The brilliance of Zalben's WTC is that it not only reminds us not to forget but also reflects on the nature of memory itself in its absolute fragility.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post