Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

September 10, 2011

Shock and serenity

The tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, poses challenges to those who are somehow involved in the civic and cultural life of a community. There is little doubt that it is a significant occasion, but much harder to articulate the nature and interpretation of its significance, and harder still to shape and produce rituals, objects, or writings that meet the demands of the day. Nonetheless, we must try, and so here we offer a few reflections from MOCRA.

That September morning I woke up as usual with NPR’s “Morning Edition” on my bedside radio. So it was that I heard the first reports of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. By the time I arrived at the museum the terrible events of the day were continuing to unfold, and I joined colleagues and students in a nearby classroom building, sickeningly spellbound by the ceaseless repetition of the footage of the buildings collapsing.

Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at MOCRA

Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at MOCRA.

I don’t recall that the work we had on display at the time (selections from the MOCRA collection) particularly spoke to the tragedy. But later that fall, we put up a show that did seem to offer a peculiar sort of consolation. MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, SJ, gives this recollection:

“In the fall of 2001, MOCRA opened Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds. Our large chapel space was filled with over 60 of Warhol’s pillow-shaped, silver coated mylar balloons with just the right balance of helium and air and stirred about the space by over 25 fans. Some people likened it to being inside an aquarium with schools of fish gently swimming by; others likened it to being inside a lava lamp. At times we would play The Gymnopedies of Erik Satie to serve as a musical score for the Clouds’ improvised choreography.

One woman came into the museum and sat down in the center of the space for about a half hour, with the Clouds gently floating by her and brushing against her. After the half hour, she got up, walked over to me and with tears in her eyes, said, ‘You have no idea how important this exhibition has been to me at this time—thank you,’ and then she left. I don’t know what was going on in her life—whether it had anything to do with 9/11 or if it was some personal matter—but somehow that experience was a healing one for her.”

Something about the Clouds allows them to connect with all sorts of people. Perhaps it’s their immediacy and presence, or their ability to project a sense of personality. They seem liberated and resilient, yet at the same time vulnerable.

A year later, on the first anniversary of 9/11, the Silver Clouds were back for an encore presentation. That day we showed an HBO-produced documentary titled “In Memoriam” throughout the day. The Clouds were corralled into one corner of the nave gallery, restrained from floating for that first anniversary observance. It seemed to be an appropriate occasion for rehearsing and interpreting the events of the tragedy. Words and on-site footage were the order of the day. Still, the Clouds were flying again the next day, mute but speaking truths nonetheless.


A September 9 article in the New York Times describes contention over the role of clergy in September 11 memorial observations. Religion is bound up with September 11 and its aftermath, from controversies over the interpretation of the Koran to questions about whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a morally justified response. The clamor over a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero and an expanded mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, shows that religion and its manifestations remain a divisive issue. Has the concept of “civic religion” run its course? How do we find common ground without sacrificing our specificity of belief and practice?

There are some moderate, nuanced voices in the wilderness. Public radio’s “On Being” has a new program out, “9/11: Who Do We Want To Become / Remembering Forward Ten Years After,” featuring The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones.

In the St. Louis region at least, and I suspect in all quarters, the arts, especially music, are playing a prominent role in the memorial observances. For instance, a number of arts, religious, and civic organizations have come together to present “An Interfaith Memorial in Music commemorating the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.” The organizers describe it this way:

This event, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, will be religious and interfaith in character. It will be a program to inspire and allow reflection, express sorrow and regret, and unify the community in hope for peace. One statement of the message of the event: although we cannot directly bring about world peace, we can do what we can, in our community, together and in public. The program will include:

  • First Responders from the County Police and City and County Fire Departments, Presentation of the colors
  • Senator John Danforth, Invocation
  • Christine Brewer, Soloist, Opera Theatre of St. Louis
  • String Quartet, St. Louis Symphony
  • Religious musical expressions of various faith communities

It seems that this service is in part an outgrowth of interfaith dialogue that took place surrounding a production of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in Summer 2011.

For those wishing to attend the Interfaith Memorial, it takes place on September 11, 2011, 5:30-6:30 p.m., at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis 63108. Click here for more information.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

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