Banners at CEPA are a fitting - and floating - tribute

News Art Critic

Requiem for September 11, a site-specific public art work by Tatana Kellner memorializing those lost in the terrorist attacks.
Through Dec. 20
CEPA Gallery, Market Arcade Building, 617 Main St.

Tatana Kellner's banners contain the portraits of some 3,000 victims of Sept. 11's attacks.
In the past, memorials to the victims of wars tended to fall into familiar forms of heroic figure sculpture or imposing architectural arrangements. In this country, it wasn't until Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial (1982) - the now-famous "Wall" - demonstrated that memorials can better support shared feelings of grief and nascent national unity by fastidiously avoiding all bombast and following a path of calculated artistic restraint.

A similar artistic restrain must play an even more critical part in any memorial to the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. The individuals who died in the Twin Towers, in the Pentagon and in the downing of Flight 93 were not combatants but ordinary citizens going about their daily work. The many acts of heroism that occurred that day - those documented and those that will never be known - were not linked to any known conflict. Military or political symbolism will ring false, as will any attempt to make a grandiose statement out of the tragedy of these deaths.

Tatana Kellner may be the perfect artist for such a memorial.

Her "Requiem for September 11th," a CEPA Gallery project installed in the atrium of the Market Arcade building, is, artistically, almost self-effacing. It finds the exact right tone - neither detached nor freighted with artistic ego.

Composed of 44 white, translucent fabric banners suspended in two columns, the piece hovers in the narrow space of the atrium as two silvery, shifting volumes eerily suggestive of the twin towers. These "towers," however, have been stripped of all weight and substance, and out of their soft, veiled interiors float ghostly portraits - some 3,000 in all - of the victims of the attacks on Sept. 11.

The effect is remarkable for its simplicity and restraint. The faces drift in and out of view as occasionally as a slight breeze moves across the banners. Though these images are technically nothing more than flat silk screens (mostly derived from the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" series), they gather an almost mournful presence. The appearance of empty frames, representing victims with no photograph or sometimes an identifying name, adds to the allusive sadness of the piece.

Kellner has also done a superb job in designing the piece for the particulars of the space. It cuts vertically through the narrow space of the atrium with an exquisite sense of balance and contrast between banners and architecture. Displaying their modern material frankly, the banners imply solidity but never deliver it. Meanwhile, E.B. Green's solid old building, with its skylight and flow-through design, comes with as many implications of openness as could be mustered in the late 19th century.

By having the piece hang a dozen or so feet above the floor, Kellner effectively connects the uplift of the banners with the horizontal movement of people below. Viewers passing under can take in the long upward perspective of the banners and still sense their normal relationship with the arcade walkway. This simultaneous experience of ascent and architectural stability has its own particular emotional resonance.

Then, once on the mezzanine level, we see the banners from midpoint, one half moving downward away from the eye and the other half upward toward the sky. In the daytime when I saw the installation, the faces - some now directly at eye level - seemed to take on a grayish solidity that now and again would be partly washed away by the light flooding in from above. The way they hovered, uncannily serene in their place between floor and sky, seemed to me to poignantly illustrate that pained sense of irreconcilability that must inevitable accompany a tragedy of this magnitude.

With this simple memorial Kellner has made a moving and profoundly respectful tribute to those who died and has created a place where the living can contemplate and grieve.

A good time to see the "Requiem" - and perhaps meet this remarkable artist - is next Friday evening from 5:30 to midnight when "Assemblage and Ritual," a mid-career retrospective of Kellner's work, opens at CEPA Gallery.