Photograph of dark sky with a plane in the background aerial advertising the words Death is the only certainty in life

The Shadow of Memory in a Post-9/11 World

On the morning of September 11, 2001, nightmare-like imagery appeared on television screens across the country. News footage of two commercial airliners flying dangerously low through the New York skyline played on an infinite loop. The twin towers of the World Trade Center hemorrhaged fire and black smoke against a clear blue sky. Office workers helplessly plummeted from windows. Clouds of ash rolled through New York’s financial district like slow-moving dust storms. Crowds of strangers wept and hugged one another in the streets. It was unbearable to watch, yet impossible to look away. Thirteen years later that graphic imagery still lingers in the nation’s collective memory, a stark reminder of what personal loss and incalculable horror looks like.

Like so many other people who looked on in disbelief that day, Chilean-born artist Sebastian Errazuriz was influenced by the events that transpired. For more than a decade, Errazuriz—whose first major solo museum exhibition, Look Again, opened last Friday at Carnegie Museum of Art—has been creating sculptures, photographs, collages, and sketches in memory of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Collected under the title Never Forget, Errazuriz treats the ongoing project as not only an exercise in memory, but as a way to reconsider the messages and imagery that surfaced both during and after the attacks.

Sebastian Errazuriz, Untitled piece featuring two burning Marlboro cigarettes (left); Twin Towers or Double Trouble (right), 2008. Images courtesy of Sebastian Errazuriz Studio.

As Rachel Delphia, the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Carnegie Museum of Art, writes in her curatorial essay for Look Again, Errazuriz’s art practice “begins with the basic tenet that everything we think we know or believe begs to be reconsidered.” In his pieces for Never Forget, the artist’s inquisitive yet darkly humorous nature is on full display.

“Errazuriz excels at appropriating images and objects as well as their deep-seated cultural associations,” says Delphia. “Double Trouble and the burning Marlboro cigarettes tap into the collective retinal burn of the Twin Towers into every eyeball in America. Since 9/11, we cannot help but see the towers everywhere, be that in a pair of softly smoldering cigarettes or in two toy airplanes laid side by side. The image is so fixed in our mind’s eye that we encounter it almost without trying.”

Sebastian Errazuriz, Lady Liberty, 2008. Image courtesy of Sebastian Errazuriz Studio.

Errazuriz excels when playing with familiar imagery to provoke a response. In his piece titled Lady Liberty, for example, a vintage National Geographic Society post card featuring the Statue of Liberty, with manipulations by the artist, acts as an entry point to a larger conversation.

“Using found objects and images is a hallmark of Errazuriz’s practice,” says Delphia. “He simply tweaks an element or two to completely shift the original meanings. Such is the case with Lady Liberty, who finds herself barraged with passenger jets from every angle. Errazuriz juxtaposes the optimistic icon—originally a gesture of friendship between France and the US—with a fleet of multinational would-be attackers, a not-so-subtle commentary on a shift in international relations.”

Sebastian Errazuriz, Under Attack candles, 2010. Image courtesy of Sebastian Errazuriz Studio.

In contrast to such literal imagery, Errazuriz often uses art objects as a way to express comical sentiments anchored by dark undercurrents.

“In the Under Attack candles,” says Delphia, “miniature wax monuments from the Eiffel Tower to the Statue of Liberty deform as they burn and evoke the widespread feelings of vulnerability that followed the events of September 11.”

Sebastian Errazuriz, Shadow of a Memory, 2013. Image courtesy of Sebastian Errazuriz Studio.

As those who are familiar with Errazuriz’s work know so well, public art is a forum where the artist thrives. Pieces like XXth Century Capital (2014) and The Tree Memorial of a Concentration Camp (2006) are salient examples. Another prime example is Errazuriz’s entry in Creative Time’s annual Sandcastle Competition, where the artist poured water onto the beach to replicate the shadow of a passing plane.

“I love Shadow of a Memory because it is such a simple yet powerful gesture,” says Delphia. “In a perfect world, this wouldn’t carry any great symbolic weight; it would be nothing more than the silhouette of a common mode of transportation. The very fact that the shadow of a plane approaching Manhattan brings us chills reveals the sorry state of the post 9/11 world.”

Sebastian Errazuriz: Look Again is the 73rd installment of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum series. This exhibition is organized by Rachel Delphia, The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design. Look Again is on view from September 6, 2014 through January 12, 2015.