New York is making history. Not by something it’s doing today, but by how it’s dealing with something that happened a decade ago. Visiting Ground Zero last week was a strangely emotional and compelling experience, not so much from any latent sense of terror or disaster at the site (physical signs of the devastation are all but impossible to see now), but more from the ongoing attempts to rationalise the events of the 9/11 attacks into collective memory, to write the first drafts of history.
The site of the original twin towers is shrouded from view, the new memorial being completed there is totally hidden. The presence of the cloth covered barriers, full height, preventing me from seeing anything surprised me. It transformed the experience into that of a visitor attraction, where only people who chose to go through the doors to the ‘Memorial Experience’ visitor centre got to see the site itself. My overwhelming thought was, ‘why are you shielding the site from view, surely the building work on the memorial is, in itself, part of the story of 9/11’. But no, i had no glimpse of the actual ground itself.
Instead, the narrative for me focused on a bronze plaque on an adjacent wall. Here, a lengthy montage, highly reminiscent of a war memorial, showed exhausted firemen collapsed at the base of the towers, still standing, but with the smoke billowing from the top. It was a compelling image, slightly stylised, slightly proud, slightly sad, a first casting of events into metal, a frozen image in a semi permanent form.
For me, it was made alive by the children and parents, the visiting firemen and servicemen, the kids hanging about, walking through. Hearing their reverential conversations, seeing a few people crying, seeing a photograph of a fire truck selotaped above the plaque, these were the things that really bought the emotion of the thing alive. Interestingly, the event is still of such recent memory that i felt touched by feelings that were just second hand: the people present there clearly had a direct connection to the site, i was connected by an immediate association. I felt like a child in the 60’s whose dad has fought in the war. It was close enough to touch, but too far away to really be real.
It didn’t escape me that the fact it was the stories and hushed voices that bought it to life for me was significant. History has long been told through the oral storytelling tradition and, despite technology, storytelling is still at the heart of history.
The other part of the site that was fascinating was the large globe sculpture that formerly stood in the plaza outside the towers. Buried deep beneath the rubble, it was excavated largely intact. It’s displayed temporarily in a nearby park. The globe must stand twelve feet across, on a base that lifts it ten feet into the air, and it’s smooth surfaces are ripped and scoured by rubble. The signs of it’s violent burial are clear and by far away the most potent sign i’ve seen of the event. The temporary nature of it’s display is heightened by the rather sad sight o seeing the base propped up on bricks to level it. It’s a peculiar sight, an object imbued with history and value, the phoenix from the flames.
The story of 9/11 is still being formed and, for me at least on that day, it felt like a story that was being gently turned around through the hands of a nation. There seemed no clear narrative, lots of emotion and a certain underlying sense of strength. In some ways, it was incredibly understated, almost hygienic. The shielding of the site from view reminded me of medieval churches, where the rood screen shielded the altar from the view of nave, keeping the secrets hidden from the masses. I’m sure it wasn’t intended, but it struck me as odd.
I’ll be fascinated to see the memorial when complete and to understand how the narrative is formed. Fascinated to see if the emotion is captured in voices or cast in stone.