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Art about 9/11, 20 years later

Christine Lehnen
September 10, 2021

From the Netflix drama "Worth" to a new Judith Butler book: the cultural world is still reckoning with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The silhouette of fire fighters in front of skyscrapers.
Nearly 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001Image: picture alliance / Newscom

On September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell victim to a terrorist attack. Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger planes, flying two of them into the iconic skyscrapers. Two other hijacked planes crashed into the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died, including many first responders who had rushed to the scene in downtown Manhattan to help.

The terrorist attacks went down in history as a turning point in time, triggering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now, 20 years later, the cultural world is still dealing with the events of 9/11. Works of architecture, visual arts, film and television are asking important questions such as "How can we mourn? How do you rebuild a city? What should have been done better?"

DW rounds up some of the most significant developments in the cultural realm.

Architecture: One World Trade Center, by Daniel Libeskind

Today, the site in Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood is known as "Ground Zero". It now comprises a popular square, a memorial museum and the 94-storey skyscraper, One World Trade Center.

An image of the One World Trade center.
One World Trade Center was originally designed by architect Daniel LibeskindImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Horsten

The One World Trade Center was originally designed by the American-Polish architect Daniel Libeskind, although the design has changed over time.

"It is a very important project, because it's not over yet. Cities have a longevity," Libeskind told DW in an interview earlier this year. "It is now a neighborhood and it is thriving."

In the past, Libeskind said, the sidewalk was empty by 6 p.m. and the buildings stood silent after hours, "like dark tombstones of money." The area was part of the financial district and inhabited during the day by those who worked on Wall Street.

Now, however, there are restaurants, schools and apartments. "It's a neighborhood. It's no longer just this darkness," he added.

At the heart of Ground Zero the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which features two reflecting pools at the location of the former foundations of the Twin Towers. Each pool is surrounded by bronze parapets that list the names of those who died on 9/11 and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Remembrance is an important part of Libeskind's work; he also designed Berlin's Jewish Museum.

Visual Art: New York 9/11, by Yadegar Asisi

Artist Yadegar Asisi, born in Vienna and raised in Halle and Leipzig in Germany, helped Libeskind realize his vision for the Ground Zero memorial.

Asisi specializes in 360° panoramas. His expertise helped Libeskind win the competition for the design of Ground Zero.

Yadegar Asisi working on the panorama "New York 9/11."
Yadegar Asisi makes large-scale panorama installationsImage: asisi

Today, Asisi is working on a new panorama, "New York 9/11," which is intended to enable visitors to immerse themselves in New York in 2001 — and to experience the five minutes before the first plane hit one of the Twin Towers.

"I put people in this position where they know that their lives are going to change within the next five minutes and the whole world with them, whether they like it or not," he told DW in a telephone interview.

It is rare, the artist elaborates, to have such a global moment of remembrance: Most people remember exactly where they were when the towers collapsed. "Remembrance only makes sense if it is emotionally charged, only then can it be used for or against something," Asisi explains.

He plans to embed his panorama in an exhibition that will focus on the consequences of the terrorist attacks. Personal decisions will feature in it, as well as global political decisions, such as those related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He takes a particularly critical view of the latter. He describes "New York 9/11" as his third anti-war panorama.

A still from the film featuring Michael Keaton as lawyer Kenneth Feinberg talking to another man.
The film 'Worth' deals with the memories of those who died in the terrorist attacksImage: Monika Lek / Netflix

Film: Worth, by Sara Colangelo

Released on Netflix in the summer of 2021, the film Worth by director Sara Colangelo, starring Stanley Tucci and Michael Keaton.

Worth takes on the topic of 9/11 in a unique way. It tells the story of lawyer Ken Feinberg, who was hired to deal with the compensation claims of the relatives of the victims of the attack. The film is highly critical of the political decisions made by the US government after the terrorist attacks. Central to movie is the question: "How can one measure the value of a life?"

Colangelo puts the survivors of the 9/11 attacks in the foreground, and thereby creates a portrait of victims based on the memories of their partners, family and friends.

The film is not overly sentimental like Remember Me (2010), featuring actor Robert Pattinson. It doesn't glorify torture, as critics accused Kathryn Bigelow of doing in her 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty.

It also avoids prompting controversy related to conspiracy theories, like director Spike Lee's current HBO documentary NYC Epicenters: 9/11-2012 ½. After a number of protests, Lee cut 30 minutes of the documentary due to its inclusion of conspiracy theories related to the attacks.

Worth succeeds in drawing a portrait of traumatized and grieving people who do not dream of revenge being taken, but simply wish that the memory of their deceased loved ones will live on.

Literature: The Force of Nonviolence, by Judith Butler

Literature is a common medium for dealing with the topics of grief and trauma in the US and around the world.

For example, US author Jonathan Safran Foer created Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), a modern classic about a young boy who lost his father in the attacks and wanders around New York City.

Judith Butler stands amidst a crowd of people.
Butler's book 'The Force of Nonviolence' asks how society can change after 9/11Image: picture-alliance/dpa

As one of the most important thinkers in the USA, Judith Butler, a professor of philosophy at Berkeley University, has been addressing the topic of 9/11 for the last two decades. In response to the terrorist attacks, she began to think about which lives in the US are considered worthy of mourning — and which are not.

In 2020 she published her latest book on the subject: The Force of Nonviolence. In it, she calls for a collective shift in thinking in a way that will prevent wars and make human lives truly equal, regardless of where the person lives, what their nationality is and what color skin they might have.

Twenty years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the USA has changed in ways that are reflected in contemporary art and culture. Yet one thing is remains: the arts are still finding ways to mourn the horrors of 9/11.