Suddenly summoned to witness something great and horrendous, we keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness. From the viewpoint of a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, where I happened to be visiting some kin, the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers had the false intimacy of television, on a day of perfect reception.
-John Updike, The New Yorker, Sept 24, 2001
Ford to City: Drop Dead
Daily News headline 1975
Recently I was watching the Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O'Brien film Downtown81. The film stars the artist Jean Michel Basquiat, and for its entirety he ambles through the Lower East Side from loft to club and back again. One scene in particular struck me and this is why I refer to it in this press release for the upcoming PPOW exhibition Big City Fall. In the scene, Basquiat is walking down Clinton Street on the other side of Delancey. The background that encompasses him looks bombed out, like it could be 80's Beirut or present day Kabul. A lone brown brick tenement building stands next to an empty lot strewn with bricks and rubble, and the sky is bright blue but it may as well be ominous red. The scene behind Basquiat is the exact location of Martin Wong's painting Sweet Oblivion. Early in his career, Wong often referred to himself as 'the human instamatic,' even creating a few paintings with that tag as a calling card. Sweet Oblivion is one of his paintings that now stand in as a record of the neglected city several years after the fiscal crisis of '75 and the blackout of '77. Viewing the painting now, post 9/11, it recalls the title of a David Wojnarowicz essay In the Shadow of the American Dream, Someday this will all be Picturesque Ruins. In the Wojnarowicz essay, as well as in the installation in this exhibition, erected for the first time since the mid-eighties, his concern lay within the dying culture of America. Whereas Wong's painting reflects the urban blight of the area, Wojnarowicz' cityscape foreshadows his mortality. He later writes, "When I was told that I'd contracted this virus it didn't take me long to realize that I'd contracted a diseased society as well."
Both the eighties and the time directly after the terrorist attacks were extraordinarily trying moments for the city, but I couldn't help pondering how different viewing a destroyed urban center felt in 9/11's wake. In other words, when a big city falls, whether it is in the form of a sci-fi movie, dilapidation from urban flight, war footage, or terrorism, how do we sympathize with it? Oscar Oiwa's 2006 painting Divina Comedia depicts a drive from the hills outside of São Paolo through the slums of the city to the beach. Oiwa replaces the Brazilian city slums with that of the raw skeletal remnants of the World Trade Center. The slums, like Basquiat's ghetto, have disappeared in favor of ground zero. In contrast to Oiwa's slum, Carolee Schneemann's Terminal Velocity is an abstracted record of the actual terrorist attack and like that of her works Vietflakes and Souvenir of Lebanon, Schneemann magnifies an already published event. Terminal Velocity rapidly and repeatedly plunges us down the slick metal of the two towers. By enlarging the photographs, like that of Antonioni's Blow Up, there is an attempt to touch the victim, reveal a hidden truth, and seek justice.