Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

What did you expect? An exhibition called Art in the Age of Terror, housed in a building full of over-sized weaponry, planes banking downward toward their targets or accelerating upward, rockets of various types, some, like the V-2, so big they would only fit into the huge space if sitting on the ground. Even with its skin stripped off to show its innards, it’s hard to view this monster as a toy that we can study as if it were just a model of its evil former self.

Of course I know that this display space was designed by an architect, yet it feels as if the building has been hollowed out by a bomb or another kind of explosion. The hollowing has left a weird shrunken plan for the upper floors—they’re essentially corridors ringing the central void, relatively dark and cramped, as if that’s the right sort of space in which to think about war.

To top it off the Imperial War Museum is a space mainly populated by children. Not the Terror exhibition though; at first it is populated by no one. I have the amateur film of the events of 9/11 entirely to myself. It has no words except the screams and chopped off sentences of passers-by. The only connected speech I can remember is an exchange with a man who was meant to be on the 79th floor right now, but had missed his train. He seems crazed by his feeling of misplacement.

All of a sudden it gets much worse and the buildings collapse silently into themselves, producing giant clouds that chase people down the narrow streets, coat them in grey dust and shower them with paper like the unwanted contents of a thousand offices. The film drags, it was not composed, often it is milling in one spot, one spot after another. Yet there is something like fascination….

The exhibition is cleverly or fiendishly laid out. The walls and ceilings are a uniform dark gray, there are plenty of narrow corridors that may lead to another room with a few art works on the walls, or to an emergency exit or a pure dead end. It is a long time before another visitor appears, but after an initial absence guards are more actively present than usual, pacing without looking left or right. I even wonder if this is theatre; it feels like surveillance. I only think this after works which tackle interrogation, torture and surveillance, imaginatively to be sure, yet how do you make art of something like the famous photo of Obama’s National Security Council watching the assassination of Osama bin Laden? In this case you make it by matching a glossy widescreen TV of that photo to a blank white screen, to signify the blackout on any images of the corpse.

Grey corridors turn up again in one of the most interesting works, a film by an Israeli maker which explores the use of drones, a secret territory, by ingenious indirection: following a fictional family on a torturous journey of checkpoints, threats and near misses; interviewing a fictional drone pilot and splicing that with the anguished reminiscences of a real one, his face masked by blurring; and using shots of downtown and suburban Las Vegas to illustrate his talk of choosing his target buildings.

Otherwise, the rooms contain a catalogue of ways to express displacement from home and homeland, feelings that never go away and often seem relieved by forms of defacement, defacement of the map of the lost country for instance, or of a model of the family home. More often than not it seems a cry of pain that will end by being endlessly repeated.

I wasn’t thinking when I let myself drift next into the permanent Holocaust exhibition. This one wasn’t empty but packed with people, who moved at times like those being herded to someone else’s choice of destination. There were children here too, some very small, who were fortunately saved from reading the too-numerous texts.

Now that it’s over, I can’t imagine that my little war-excursion did me much good. When I got home I heard there’d been another mass shooting in an American school, this time in Florida, like another small incident in a worldwide disturbance that continues.

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