The Pick - Memory Remains

September 1, 2011

Memory Remains

Imperial War Museum, London

On 11 September 2001, photographer Francesc Torres was living two blocks from the Twin Towers and witnessed the second impact while talking to his mother on a mobile phone. He had often worked on projects concerned with history, ideology and memory, most recently one charting the exhumation of a common grave from the time of the Spanish Civil War. When he learned that the debris cleared from the 16-acre site of the World Trade Centre was being stored in Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he was determined to negotiate access in order to record what he found there.

After gaining permission, he worked alone for many weeks, moved nothing, brought in no extra lighting and made a digital inventory of everything around him. Yet for his final shoot he used an analogue camera, to slow the process down and create images that could be enlarged many times. He describes the experience as "very emotional, draining and surreal, with planes constantly flying overhead, just like the planes that attacked the Twin Towers".

A selection of over 150 of his photographs are now being shown on a continuous loop until 25 February 2012 at the Imperial War Museum in London. (Parallel exhibitions will soon open in Barcelona, Madrid and New York.)

The cumulative effect of the images soon becomes almost overwhelming. Here are great nests of wiring; a doll laid out on a shelf; vast elevator motors; a lone business card; maquettes of cartoon characters from a shop owned by Warner Bros. Entertainment; a complete subway car with a poster still encouraging commuters to come and get an education at the New School; clothes reduced to charred rags.

The blast on 9/11 brought to the surface lumps of schist that lay beneath the World Trade Centre. It also transformed several floors of buildings into what have become known as "composites", great lumps of "rock", six feet tall, which seem to have compressed a glacially slow geological process into a few seconds. Yet even unlikely or banal objects become unexpected symbols of loss, as every distortion and jagged edge makes one think about the impact on the people caught up in the tragedy.

The contents of Hangar 17 have been scrupulously catalogued and are now being distributed, many to form memorials all over the world.

A vast section of buckled steel, probably from a window frame on the North Tower, has been acquired by the Imperial War Museum. Part of it stands at the entrance to Memory Remains, with others due to go on display at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester (with a Union Jack found at Ground Zero) and Imperial War Museum Duxford.

There are many questions one might ask about the way such fragments have been turned into "sacred objects", or the place of 9/11 among other horrific events. Torres' photographs offer an oblique but extraordinarily powerful tribute to those killed on that one particular day 10 years ago.

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