Remembering through Contemporary Art

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks upon us, it seems only fitting that we step back to reflect on the unutterable losses that have ultimately changed our world. Across the country, memorials will be held, poetry read, and prayers uttered. It’s not a surprise, then, when we consider that the Art World has been affected by this tragedy as well—and New York, in particular, is ripe with artistic expression surrounding the events of September 11.

In commemoration of the anniversary, numerous galleries and art centers have come together as part of a citywide event, titled “Remembering 9/11: The 10th Anniversary.” All told, more than 50 institutions are partaking in exhibitions, readings, and performances dedicated to honoring those lost in the terrorist attacks. Now that a decade has passed, it seems that some artists now feel that their wounds—personal, physical or psychic—have healed enough to revisit, leading to a proliferation of works.

The Brooklyn Museum is presenting Ten Years Later: Ground Zero Remembered, an exhibition featuring works by two artists, Michael Richards and Christoph Draeger. The inclusion of Richards is especially notable for NC Museum of Art visitors, who may be familiar with Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, currently located in our Modern and Contemporary Galleries. During his tragically short career, Michael Richards frequently addressed issues of social injustice, creating stunning sculptures that criticize oppression. Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian commemorates the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots whose heroic contributions to World War II were recognized only in the past few decades. The sculpture itself, cast from the artist’s own body, represents a gold-painted airman penetrated on all sides by small airplanes, reminiscent of the arrows shot at St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr and saint. The title of the work, with its double reference to the saint and a southern folktale of entrapment, pays tribute to the Tuskegee pilots—and to all who suffer intolerance and unfairness.

The back story of the sculpture, though, is a haunting one, and is quite pertinent to the anniversary of 9/11. The work itself, in effect a self-portrait, now seems an eerie foretelling of the artist’s death. Richards was a victim of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001—his studio was on the ninety-second floor of Tower One. Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, too, was feared lost in the wreckage, as it was not found in the remains of the artist’s studio, or at his home. It was only revealed later to be stored in a relative’s garage outside of New York City. Now housed at the NCMA on long-term loan, the work is a commemoration of the artist’s life and talents and a memorial, of sorts, for September 11. Stop by over the weekend and include this as a must-see on your list.

Image: Michael Richards, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999, body cast in resin and fiberglass, painted, and supported by steel shaft, with airplanes cast in resin and fiberglass, painted, and attached by steel bolts, On loan from the estate of the artist

One Comment

  1. Barbara
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    This piece is amazing on so many levels. It calls on us to remember the valiant Tuskegee airmen, who put their lives on the line during WWII, with unimaginable bravery & skill. It also invites us to remember those lost on September 11, including not only heroes like firefighters, and ordinary folks stepping up in crisis … but also all the innocent people who unfortunately happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tremendous talent was lost that day … and Michael Richards, his own form shaping this extraordinary and beautiful sculpture, truly embodies that loss …

    The title is so striking too. Many kids today don’t know the Brer Rabbit stories, or about the Tar Baby (with Brer Rabbit, stuck fast to the unwanted Tar Baby, crying to the fox about to eat him “Don’t throw me in that briar patch!”, when that’s all he wanted all along…) Meanwhile, long ago Saint Sebastian surrendered himself to martyrdom — he was shot through with arrows for his beliefs (and his status as Christian)… and yet he miraculously survived — for a time, because he was soon after stoned to death. Makes us wonder how Michael Richards thought the Tuskegee Airmen were connected to the Tar Baby, and to Saint Sebastian …

    Thanks, NCMA, for highlighting this evocative, beautiful piece,especially as we mark this season of commemoration of our terrible tragedy 10 short years ago …

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  1. By On Tour | ArtNC News on May 15, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    [...] public and were pretty good at it. Shifting back to art, I wanted to show them Michael Richard’s Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, and they again shared very mature insights, though I think other works might have been more [...]

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