7 Controversies That Shaped the Debate About 9/11 Art

"Tribute in Light" is an art installation of 88 searchlights produced annually by the Municipal Art Society.
(Courtesy EJP Photo via Flickr)

Few tragedies have inspired such an outpouring of commentary and art as 9/11. It was, after all, the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, taking place square in the heart of the nation's biggest city. Consequently, the events of that day and the site of the former World Trade Center have taken on an unmatched weight in American iconography. With the tenth anniversary arriving and the austere memorial at Ground Zero finally about to make its debut, the floodgates have opened again with countless exhibitions and tributes planned.


Yet, as befits an event with a truly traumatic status, 9/11 has proved difficult to approach in an uncontroversial way. No work of "9/11 Art," in fact, seems complete without some commentary on how it fails or does disservice to the true nature of the tragedy — though, of course, this true nature varies depending on who is doing the commentary. Below, ARTINFO summarizes some of the most notable episodes in art's relation to the tragedy, and how these controversies have entered the public debate about the meaning of September 11, 2001.


Among the earliest works commemorating 9/11 was the "Tribute in Light" in Lower Manhattan, two columns of white light rising from near Ground Zero. The public artwork was unveiled six months after the attack, and has been repeated since on the anniversary of the attacks. The idea behind it is so intuitive that two different groups of people came up with it simultaneously: artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda, who had been working in an artist residency program on the 91st floor of Tower One, and proposed an image they called "Phantom Towers" for the New York Times Magazine; and architects architects John Bennett and Gustavo Bonevardi (of Proun Space Studio), who sketched a light-based "Project for the Immediate Reconstruction of the Manhattan Skyline." In the end, these duos are credited as having created the piece together.

The "Tribute in Light" is widely seen as one of the more successful attempts to commemorate 9/11. It is all the more significant, then, that it too has had to contend with the strong emotions stirred by the tragedy. The project was originally to be named "Towers in Light." This name, however, had to be changed after families of those who lost their lives in the attack objected that the title focused on the loss of the building rather than the people in it.


A monument of a different sort was unveiled at the same time as the "Tribute of Light" — the so-called "Koenig Sphere." Originally, the sculpture by German artist Fritz Koenig stood in the plaza between the two towers and was a symbol of peace through global commerce. After the battered globe was dragged from the rubble, however, it was sited in Battery Park as a temporary monument to the tragedy, along with an eternal flame.


The salvaged sculpture has become laden with emotional symbolism, a fact which has, in turn, led it to become enmeshed in debate. When New York City's Port Authority considered moving the Koenig Sphere into storage earlier this year, it provoked an outcry. The art insurance giant AXA — which had become the piece's legal owner following the disaster — stepped in to say that it wanted the sphere to remain on public view. Meanwhile, 9/11 family member Michael Burke has led a campaign to have the "Sphere" installed at the Ground Zero memorial park itself as physical evidence of destruction. In essence, Burke has used the ravaged sculpture as a foil to condemn the memorial's minimalist design, which he considers an elitist attempt to sanitize tragedy.


On the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, Eric Fischl's "Tumbling Woman" was unveiled in Rockefeller Center, a sculptural depiction of a contorted nude woman that was meant to evoke the many people who desperately threw themselves from the burning towers after the attack. The piece was accompanied by a short poem by the artist, stating, "We watched, / disbelieving and helpless, / on that savage day. / People we love / began falling, / helpless and in disbelief."

The subject matter, however, was still too hot to touch with art, and "Tumbling Woman" was first veiled and then removed from Rockefeller Center after complaints. Fischl was forced to release a statement, defending his intent. "The sculpture was not meant to hurt anybody," he wrote. "It was a sincere expression of deepest sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition. Both specifically towards the victims of Sept. 11 and towards humanity in general."


On September 15, 2005, Russian president Vladimir Putin himself marked theunveiling of a memorial to 9/11 in Bayonne, New Jersey, declaring it a "symbol of Russian-American unity against the threat of terrorism." "To the Struggle Against World Terrorism," as the piece was called, was manufactured in St. Petersburg, donated by the Russian government, and consisted of a 98-foot concrete tower with a large open rift at the center in which an immense, 40-foot-high metal teardrop is cradled. The massive piece was originally set to stand at Exchange Place, across the Hudson from the WTC site. However, after a torrent of criticism, it ended up being relocated to Bayonne. ''If Bayonne wants it, be my guest,'' Jersey City mayor Jerramiah T. Healy said at the time. ''I'm not an art critic, but what I've seen of the thing, its too big.''

The opus is the work of Zurab Tsereteli, who has his own Moscow museum and is famous for his super-scaled monuments — but is also often branded a purveyor of schlock. Indeed, his Jersey memorial can probably safely be said to fall into the category of "9/11 Kitsch" (it was voted one of the world's worst sculptures by the aesthetes over at Foreign Policy magazine). Not everyone is a hater, though: Recently, it was reported that two motorcycle crews, the Legion Riders and the Knights of Fire,were escorting a chunk of metal from Ground Zero to Bayonne, where it would be mounted onto the base of Tsereteli's memorial.


September 11's impact was felt far beyond New York City, and Arizona dedicated its own memorial to residents affected by the tragedy, on September 11, 2006. Titled "Moving Memories," and designed by the team of Eddie Jones, Maria Salenger, and Matthew Salenger for a Phoenix park, the monument consisted of an elevated disk carved with 54 phrases relating to the attacks. The selection of phrases was meant to provoke reflection, rather than offering a straightforward celebration of heroism — a decision that sparked fury from right-wing commentators. While "Moving Memories" featured lines like "216 Arizona firefighters respond to WTC" and "Native Arizonan Gary E. Bird dies at age 51," it also had more ambiguous text fragments, like the ominous "fear of foreigners," the saber-rattling "must bomb back," and the plaintive "you don't win battles of terrorism with more battles."

Republican state senator John Kavanagh led the charge against the memorial, righteously declaring that the problem with "Moving Memories" was that artists "wanted to provoke thought and discussion, where most Arizona residents expected a straight memorial where you come to remember, meditate, to pray." He introduced a bill to replace the text fragments with less controversial time line of 9/11. While this never became law, two of the more morally complex phrases in "Moving Memories" were struck: "Erroneous US air strike kills 46 Uruzgan civilians" and "Terrorist organization leader addresses American people." The offending lines were replaced by the statements "let's roll," "God Bless America," and "United We Stand."


When Soho's prestigious Drawing Center was tapped to be part of the World Trade Center redevelopment in 2004, president George Negroponte called it "a chance for a synergy that could take the site to a different place." But the synergy soon turned sour, as the New York Daily News kicked off a crusade against the institution's inclusion because its past programming failed to evidence, as the tabloid put it, a "single-minded respect for the memories of the dead." Particularly offensive was an image by Amy Wilson which depicted the hooded figure from the Abu Ghraib torture photos with wires around it spelling out the word "Liberty," as well as one of the famous conspiracy theory drawings by the late Mark Lombardi mapping the connections of then-president Bush to various nefarious forces. The Daily News righteously called upon governor George Pataki to "show these people the door," which he obligingly did, pronouncing that, "We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom, or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on Sept. 11."

After backing off its plans for Ground Zero, the Drawing Center announced that it was still considering a move to Lower Manhattan as part of the redevelopment of the area. At length, however, even these designs were abandoned, seeming to indicate that the scuffle had left a lasting bruise: the Center finally settled on a plan to remain in Soho last year.


After being found in the rubble at Ground Zero, the so-called "World Trade Center Cross" — an intersecting pair of beams that resemble the Christian crucifix — became an instant icon for the faithful. In 2003, it was installed on a pedestal, and in July of this year it was moved from this temporary site to the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. Given the crusader rhetoric of president George W. Bushin the wake of 9/11 — rhetoric that justified the invasions of several Muslim countries — the appeal to religious symbolism was bound to provoke some queasy reactions. Most vocally, a group of American atheists recently sued to block the "Cross" from the museum, after first contacting the museum about displaying their own memorial, "possibly in the form of an atom or an American flag," according to ABC News. The group's rhetoric about the memorial was so narrow that it drew widespread ridicule, including from comedian Jon Stewart, who suggestedthat the atheists be allowed to build their atom memorial — as long as it was made up of billions of tiny crosses.  


Finally, one of the most infamous debates about culture at Ground Zero was also about religious symbolism, in the form of a proposed Muslim cultural center, Park51, near the site. The project was slandered as the "Ground Zero Mosque" or the "Victory Mosque," but it was actually, lest it be forgotten, a cultural complex modeled after the 92nd Street Y, and was to have hosted art exhibitions, among other uncontroversial things, as a gesture towards cultural exchange and tolerance. The uproar — complete with a demonstration decrying the rise of Sharia law in the U.S. that featured an effigy of a keffiyeh-wearing man strapped to a fake missile — showed how the emotions around 9/11 could be channeled in the ugliest of directions, towards racism and base demagoguery.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the people behind Park51 were pressing ahead with their plans, albeit at a slower pace to build support, with the center's final incarnation to open years in the future. Perhaps by then some of the more intractable dilemmas surrounding approaching 9/11 through art will have been worked out.