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A Necessary Congregation

Cleaning house at Ground Zero

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In a former high school basketball gym in Hickory, NC, now the Coe Gallery at the Hickory Museum of Art, is Aftermath: Images from Ground Zero, 31 pictures chronicling the clean up at Ground Zero. Joel Meyerowitz, a street photographer from NYC, was granted exclusive unimpeded access to the site for the first few months following the fall of the twin towers. We've all heard from countless sources what 9/11 means to Americans, and to the world and history. From Rudy to W to Susan Sontag, and from other lesser luminaries and hundreds of forgettable talking heads, the chatter of 9/11 analysis and post-9/11 prognostications drones on... and on and on. Three and a half years of high-minded debate and low end banter ends for me here, with the photographs in this show. For those, like me, who did not make the pilgrimage to Ground Zero, this is as close as we'll ever get. This is as close as most of us would ever want to get.

Meyerowitz's show begins in the hallway leading to the former basketball court with "before" and "after" photographs — before and after the clean up.

The "after" photo is not dated. The site resembles the beginning of a construction project, except the remaining structures — partial foundation walls, pieces of parking deck, slabs of concrete — are torn at the edges, burned or smoke stained, and the remaining structural elements — columns, steel beams and rebar — are bent and stripped bare, as if they were intentionally twisted, then cleaned and abandoned. Hundreds of trucks and trailers, illuminated by high intensity lamps, populate the cleaned and orderly site. Intact buildings, dimly and indirectly lit, surround and loom over the site in the night sky. Scrubbed of its above ground recent history, it looks like an orderly urban archeological dig.

The "before" picture is dated September 27, 2001. We see the site from ground level. One fragile piece of a building's façade — now an iconic visual symbol of the event — leans in the center of the photograph. Buildings on the periphery show busted windows and bruised veneers. Wisps of smoke rise above the debris. The acres of strewn remnants resemble toys, jewelry, matchsticks, paper money, sand and dirt spun on the grind in the blender and thrown on an architectural model.

Police and firemen, the advance guard clean up crew, stand in small groups and stare in no particular direction, like orphans in the ruins of Dresden. There's work to be done, and it will get done, but this day's stun phase has yet to pass. The men in hardhats and jumpsuits appear dwarfed by the enormity of the task ahead. To me, only the "after" photo to the left makes the task appear even possible. The "after" for me is still evolving — my after is me standing here, right now, still thinking it's not possible.

Meyerowitz found a daycare center room adjacent to Ground Zero. On six square feet of floor are paper cutouts, name tags on strings and four toy cars, all evenly covered with a quarter inch of very fine dust. The dust is embossed with patterned footprints from the soles of work boots. They look like the footprints from the moon's surface. Men prancing on the moon was more believable, and was possible to swallow. This I can't swallow. The kids appear to have left this room 100 years ago.

The size of Ground Zero is conveyed by the bigness of the photographs and by the cavernous central gallery on the second floor of the museum. I walk up a walled stairway to the second floor. The steel truss ceiling is 50 feet overhead. At the top stair landing, I see the largest photograph in the show — a panoramic view of destruction that I can't quite wrap my head around. Walking up from below is like ascending from the bowels of a parking garage to emerge and witness the obliteration of your only known world. Makes you want to turn around, drive home, grab the sherry off the shelf and go back to bed.

"The Twin Towers, September 25, 2001" is 7 feet tall and 16 feet across. Stadium lights border the photograph and illuminate the chaos through a milky mist of smoke rising under a blue/black starless sky. Burnt orange beams hang over scarred foundation like spaghetti dropped over children's building blocks. All color has melted, meshed and dimmed to dry dung. Stilled cranes tower over the monochromatic heaps. The remaining lattice façade — a national cerebral snapshot as durable as the wailing woman at Kent State — leans weak kneed, doomed and defiant, as grand and pitiful as a loved one's final gasp.

This photograph, like most of the pictures here, is filled with endless detail — booms, concrete, fire trucks, dumpsters, structural steel, glass, paper, dust, dirt. Scrutinizing the laundry list of carnage is like counting the buttons on the corpses at Gettysburg — sanity demands a reprieve. You can't take it all in at once; it won't compute or register.

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