Gestures in Absence

On the 15 Year Memory of 9/11

by Will Tavlin

Illustration by James Zhang

published September 16, 2016

A thousand 9/11 stories are the same. Ask any New Yorker who watched the event in real time what they saw that day and they’ll tell you as much about the planes as the bridges packed with masses escaping Manhattan, the complete dissolve of structures and protocol, the white ash raining over Brooklyn. Mine: I didn’t see the towers fall. From Hoboken, New Jersey, our teacher explained to our first grade class that a plane had hit New York. I imagined a Boeing 747 landing on Fifth Avenue, its wings neatly lined up with a cross street fitting perfectly along the grid.

There is a formula to the 9/11 personal narrative. It serves to describe as much as it does to subdue. It takes a great commitment to memory to reconstruct the city’s collective trauma without an individual’s personal narrative escaping it, overtaking it. As John Updike, writing in the New Yorker’s issue following the attacks, recounted: “My wife and I watched from the Brooklyn building’s roof, the south tower dropped from the screen of our viewing, it fell straight down like an elevator…. We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling.”  There are ten accounts like his in the same issue. There are thousands like his retold yearly.

From rooftops and city streets, the situation was rendered incalculable. The city bore witness to the birth of its own phantom limb. A collective trauma of absence: what was once there, painfully, viewed in an instant, was not.




Every story must be told. This was the great challenge facing the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation’s 13-member jury as they embarked on the most closely watched and contested memorial competition in American history. Managed by the joint city-state Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the competition, announced in 2003, quickly received 5,201 proposals from 62 countries. Each proposal followed a simple set of guidelines: that the site provide space for contemplation, that it convey historic authenticity, that there be a separate resting place for unidentified remains, and that the World Trade Center footprints—the geological scars made from the fallen towers—were to be made visible. Art critic Nancy Princenthal, covering the jury’s deliberation process in her essay “World Trade Center Memorial,” writes that, above all, “the guidelines tried to ensure that the memorial’s concerned public—a community understood as both subject and audience—be defined, and honored, as explicitly as possible. Each victim was to be ‘recognized’ individually.” 

It was evident, at a public forum held to review the guidelines in 2003, that the process would be difficult. Namely, the various interested parties—firefighters, first responders, office workers, local residents, victims’ families—called for the memorial to contain individual forms of recognition. “Particular passion was aroused by the demand that firefighters be designated as such, and identified by their engine companies,” writes Princenthal. “Most insistently, heroes were distinguished from victims.”

Meanwhile, larger political forces were warring over Ground Zero’s long-term future. In his New Yorker article “Stones And Bones,” Adam Gopnik details the negotiations between the developer Larry Silverstein (who had leased the World Trade Center buildings shortly before they collapsed), Port Authority, and New York’s then-governor, George Pataki. Together these three actors decided the fate of the site’s economic and cultural renewal. As Gopnik writes, Pataki, aligned with the public’s demand to preserve the tower’s footprints, and resistant to Port Authority and Silverstein’s rebuilding agendas, ultimately resolved to include both. “Two seemingly contradictory ideas,” writes Gopnik, “that it was necessary to keep the site ‘sacred’ and also necessary to rebuild it for commerce—governed the design of the site from the beginning.” 

It is thus a great achievement that the winning 9/11 memorial design, Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence, somehow satisfied the memorial’s major and minor political players. The memorial has been lauded for its simplicity: two 200-square-foot sinks, literal footprints of the north and south World Trade Centers, positioned adjacently in a plaza of 400 sweetgum and swamp white oak trees. Streams of water fall 35 feet into the memorial’s basin before disappearing into a central, darker, well. On the outer edges of the pools are the list of names of those who died. 

To be a visitor at Reflecting Absence, however, is to be subject to a barrage of seemingly contradictory ideas regarding death and how it should be retained in the public consciousness. As a site to “provide space for contemplation,” Reflecting Absence is frustrating. Couched under the newly built One World Trade Center, bustled beside Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus transportation hub, and under the bawl of the waterfalls, introspection is overtaken by distraction. It is the first in a long list of criticisms that have assailed Reflecting Absence since its opening to the public in 2011. As Gopnik—after watching a security guard chastise a group of kids for standing on a granite bench—critiques, “the idea that we celebrate the renewal of our freedom by deploying uniformed guards to prevent children from playing in an outdoor park is not just bizarre in itself but participates in a culture of fear that the rest of the city, having tested, long ago discarded.”  The memorial’s design imposes more contradictions onto the visitor. Gopnik writes: “a cemetery that cowers in the shadow commerce; an insistence that we are here to remember and an ambition to let us tell you what to recall; the boast that we have completely started over and the promise that we will never forget.”

While right-wing voices, historically partial to nationalist displays of strength in memorials, have criticized the lack of a singular patriotic imagery, critics on the left have noted, with some dismay, its likeness to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Princenthal cites two examples of such critiques: in the New York Observer, Clay Risen, critiquing all eight of the memorial competition's finalists, called each design’s use of Maya Lin’s Minimalist vocabulary a “crutch, rather than an inspiration.” Architecture critic Paul Goldberger agreed, writing in the New Yorker that the eight semi-finalists “could be commemorating any sadness, not the particular horror of the World Trade Center disaster, and most of them have the bland earnestness of a well-designed public plaza.”

Risen and Goldberger’s allegations that Reflecting Absence conforms to Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial are not unwarranted. Both Lin’s work and Reflecting Absence rely on a Minimalist style: clean geometry, gently sloping lines, and polished granite listing the names of those lost from each memorial’s respective tragedy. But Princenthal distinguishes Lin’s memorial language as a “Minimalist dialect” rooted more in the radical pursuit of emotion than it is in a reductive formal design. As Princenthal notes, Lin’s memorial asserts that “written language—including the perceptual space it creates as well as the meaning it conveys—is every bit as important as pure form.”

In a 1996 interview with Tom Finkelpearl, Lin characterized her work as “anti-monumental, intimate... The way you read a book is a very intimate experience and my works are like books in public areas.”  The Vietnam memorial can literally be read, and interacted with, like a book. The names are listed on the wall chronologically. To pass through the memorial is to walk through the Vietnam War’s history of death. One slowly descends downwards into the gash, the height of the wall appearing to grow higher, the list of names, longer. The simplicity of the memorial has invited visitors to make their own personal additions, mementos. A bottle of Jack Daniels; a loved one's favorite record. The personalized objects, like annotations, began appearing next to the name of their subject, usually brought by victim's friends and families, usually crying.

But the fundamental success of Maya Lin—that her memorial asked the viewer to participate in keeping alive the memory of what was once a never-ending, violent intervention—is totally absent in Arad and Walker’s work. Reflecting Absence doesn’t create space for real commemorative practices that, as Lin generated for the Vietnam War, could reify and resituate the public’s collective trauma—it never could. The stakes of its political interests were always too high. 

On one hand, the memorial needed to appease the public’s interest in individual representations. That one of the 9/11 memorial jury’s guidelines required recognition of the victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is noteworthy; the six who perished in 1993, named alongside the 2,977 victims in the towers, indicates a commitment to representing the public’s pluralism by placing it, defining it, and limiting it under the umbrella of ‘terrorism.’ Reflecting Absence subscribes to the same politicized agenda president George W. Bush put forth in the wake of the attacks: security before sanctity. Personal mementos brought to the site are strictly banned (although the memorial staff places one white rose in the carved-out names of victims on their birthdays). American political legacies were also at stake. A 9/11 memorial that did anything besides reinforce the conditions of its own production—the supposed strength of its nation—would not have fared well for the public image of its proponents. So we are told how to move, what to remember, what was destroyed, and exactly who the victims were, through a memorial that forecloses the possibility that the city itself was a victim— that in watching disaster in the sky, something could be mangled besides the towers themselves. 

Thus, if Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial is experienced as a book, Reflecting Absence is experienced as a lecture, one of conflicting ideas and muddled conclusions. Its failure is not solely in its attempt to tell you what to think, but that the conclusion has already been reached. That, in the words of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, “it will be a place where people say ‘never again.’” 

It isn’t. Reflecting Absence is the political answer to a question beyond politics. A loss of colossal immensity is still felt through the fabric of the city today.




Three years before the towers fell, in 1998, artists Paul Myoda and Julian LaVerdiere had a studio on the 91st floor of 1 World Trade Center. They were working on a public art project, funded by the downtown New York public arts organization Creative Time, dedicated to genetic technologies. The project: mounting, on the tip of 1 World Trade Center’s spire, a bioluminescent beacon. 

Illuminated by the natural chemical reaction between luciferin and luciferase in the presence of ATP, which occurs naturally in single-cell plankton, it was intended as a kind of signal. To be, as Myoda (now a professor at Brown University) noted in a 2002 lecture at Columbia University, “an artificial star, faintly visible above Manhattan’s skyline. A blinking, shimmering, point, which said, simply: here, there is life, as well.” 

September 11 crashed their studio and with it the entire project. In the days after the disaster, the New York Times Magazine, with prior knowledge of the bioluminescent beacon, asked Myoda and LaVerdiere for an artist’s response to the attacks. Privately, the artists—both of whom, from their rooftops, watched 9/11 unfold—discussed the phenomenon of the phantom limb. “The World Trade Center was invisible, unmade, in the world of dust and dirt and fire and body parts, but somehow remade in our imaginations,” Myoda said in his lecture. “The experience of phantom pains revealed itself…. The tingling, oftentimes maddening, sensation attendant with the loss of a limb is prevalent in medical literature; the sense that something is there—a something which undeniably hurts—but cannot be rubbed, cannot be allayed, cannot be given even a momentary respite.” 

Their artistic rendering for the project appeared on the cover of the September 23, 2001 issue of the Times Magazine: two light beams mapped onto the new, now towerless Manhattan skyline, faded to the point of near-invisibility. The image, originally entitled “Phantom Towers,” gripped the public. With the help of Creative Time, and the money for their bioluminescent beacon still at their disposal, Myoda and LaVerdiere snowballed their image into an actualized installation on March 11, 2002.

As an object it was peculiar. Up close, 88 high-powered xenon lights rocketing upwards, its light particles appearing to vibrate in midair. From afar, the individual lights appeared as two discrete beams. “The phenomenological effect,” said Myoda, “was heretofore unseen; the tallest, brightest image in history. The visual effect of three-point perspective, strangely personalized the image; it warped above one’s head, no matter where one was located. Facing it, and looking above, was the same experience as facing away from it, and looking above.”  Their translucence offered a ghostlike quality. Atmospheric conditions change their appearance too: cloud cover and fog concentrate the beams and heighten their visibility; on a clear night the wave-particles dissipate, fading outwards.

As Myoda emphasized in his lecture, “on such a large scale, nerve endings, raw and severed loose, needed something to grasp, something to close the loop. Something that even momentarily avoided the mediating interference inherent in an image, a scrim, screen, or interface.” Tribute In Light, in this way, gives a literal form to the city’s trauma: a rendering of the phantom limb so many witnesses looking at the skyline intimated for years. A haunting specter. There, but not quite. Gestured, but not articulated. What was once there, painfully, still is not—and it doesn’t have to be. 

Tribute In Light, in its success, signals absence in its positive form. An absence that isn’t quite absent. It is a type of void located somewhere in the cavernous pits of Reflecting Absence, clunkily shoveled into its name, lost in the roar of the waterfalls, but truer, more lucid, more self-evident in the twin beams catching the ceiling of the sky.

The politics of land are largely evacuated. Tribute In Light is not about landscape but about the skyline, because land had nothing to do with the terror felt by the millions watching the towers fall and everything to do with the act of looking itself. You can find it in YouTube clips, stories by survivors: onlookers from their rooftops as close as TriBeCa and as far as Far Rockaway, all watching, staring, witnessing, from their streets and rooftops, the century change before their eyes. 

Speaking to me in his studio in Providence, Myoda recalls that the night the lights turned on—in March 2002—was assisted by an absolute quiet. A small navy of passenger boats and ferries had assembled in the harbor for a total and unobstructed view of the installation. Out of the quiet came a sudden cascade of boat horns; a singular roar, the sound of many as one. Myoda says you could hear it throughout the island. “One of the workers who was down there a lot came to us and thanked us. He said: ‘instead of people coming down here and looking at the pit, it's the first time we’re looking up.’”


WILL TAVLIN B’17.5 is looking.