The Light at the End of the Tunnel is an Oncoming Train

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Ryan McGinley, "Tom (Golden Tunnel)," 2010, C-Print, 72 x 110 inches. Courtesy Team Gallery.

Ten years ago today, on September 11, 2001, at 5:46 am Pacific Standard Time, I was asleep in the semi-darkness of an Oregon dawn.  I was still asleep at 6:03 am.  By 6:37 am, however, I had been jolted awake by the ringing sound of a telephone in another room of the house, and then by the sound of footsteps coming towards my door, andeventuallyby the information that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  For better or worse, I missed the initial confusion, the questions about irregular flight patterns and problems with air traffic control.  By the time I got to the television set, Bush had held his moment of silence, there were reports of a fire at the Pentagon, and it was clear that this was a planned attack.

I watched as President George W. Bush sent our troops into Afghanistan, eventually dragging the rest of the world—in the form of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force —behind him.  In March of 2003, I finally saw the negative space punched out of the Manhattan skyline with my own eyes.  Coincidentally, it was the same week that Bush dropped thinly veiled threats via his press secretary that if the United Nations did not take action against Iraq, other “international bodies” would.  And we did, despite the fact that the motives given were dubious and lacked hard evidence.

I was twenty-five in 2001.  I was not a child, or a teenager whose nightmare became the bogeyman in the form of Osama bin Laden.  My nightmare, post-9/11, has been many the frequent and many betrayals of the citizens of the United States by its government at the levels of accountability and policy.  Watching President Barack Obama announce the death of Osama bin Laden, I felt no relief.  The War in Afghanistan is listed as ongoing (2001-present).  Our engagement with Iraq is ongoing.

It has been a decade, long enough to have begun to talk about post-9/11 trends in art and literature, long enough for those artists and writers whose practices weren’t quite set on September 11, 2011, to have grown up and to have incorporated their own personal nightmares into their production.  Earlier this summer, OHWOW Gallery in Los Angeles staged “Post-9/11,”  with work by New-York-based-artists Ryan McGinley and his circle.  The keystone piece, McGinley’s Tom (Golden Tunnel), 2010, features a naked man walking toward a golden light at the end of a stone or concrete tunnel with his hand guarding his eyes.  The light washes everything in the photo.

The exhibition title itself was merely meant to be provocative, as well as to encapsulate McGinley and his milieu.  This was not a grand curatorial retrospective of Post-9/11 art.  But I have gone back to McGinley’s photo multiple times, made a little nauseous by the combination of the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel metaphor, McGinley’s capital-R Romanticism, and the double-entendre of the show title.  Are we post-9/11?  Have we survived and come through to the other side?  If we have, we are irrevocably changed.  The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.

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