Responding to 9/11
Those who were personally devastated by the stunning attack on the New York World Trade Centre (9/11) will likely find Bennett’s series of paintings on the event arrogant and even insulting. What could an artist on the other side of the world know of their anguish? And who can blame them for jealously guarding their agony from the artists and politicians who seek to steal it for their own ends. Even the survivor’s own poetry must fail. Maybe, as Adorno suggested, only a scream can witness such shock. But it is not this shock that Bennett pictures. For him, as for many around the world who have been living in the anonymous killing fields rather than the pleasure gardens of modernity, 9/11 was another shock wave of a world war without end. In this moment of danger, the past again flashed by, brushing against the grain of history.
The immense personal suffering of 9/11 was immediately appropriated by a world history. Even as the flames tore into the World Trade Centre, the fury unfolded in real time on television screens around the world, and then replayed and replayed until it was a talisman of every viewer’s future. This televisual apparition dispelled the fully kinaesthetic experience of those on the ground and their wrenching pain, dissolving it into a postmodern image of the New World Order. So, snatched from its victims by the curse of symbolism, their very personal catastrophe immediately assumed the biblical and so universal presence of prophecy fulfilled. The US government quickly understood this. New Yorkers, so used to being the epicentre or ground zero of the world, should also understand it. Bennett certainly did; it is why he had been painting this modern Babylon since 1998.
Bennett’s imaginative migration to New York in 1998 might seem an unlikely destination for an artist long-concerned with the impact of colonialism in Australia. But since the election of the Howard government in 1996 Bennett has wanted to be as far away from Australia as possible. He was not simply escaping Australia or his previous postcolonial concerns, but seeking new ways into them. In this respect, New York was an obvious place for him to go. This modern Babylon might be indifferent to its lowly origins, but not Bennett, who is alert to its global reach, its ambiguous transcultural forms, and its continuing hold over our lives.
Supposedly bartered in 1626 from its Indigenous custodians by Dutch colonists for a few glassy trinkets, Manhattan Island is a colonial artefact, equally an emblem of the modernity of colonialism as the blindness of history. Not York, but New York; its very name bears the insignia of New World colonial cultures and their modernity. Once a colonial outpost, now New York is the financial centre of a global economy. But more than this, it is Gotham City, the centre of a symbolic order that beguiles us all.
Bennett has always been an artist of terrorism and history. He pictures the catastrophic blast of 9/11 as a reverberating echo of a long and explosive history. Here New York is a symbolic site rather than an actual place. Its colonial past, unrecognised, might be forgotten, but Bennett, uneasy citizen of Babylon, cannot forget. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Notes to Basquiat (Death of Irony) (2002), which explicitly draws Australian and American colonial history and contemporary New York into the same narrative.
Bennett’s narrative is not the simplistic history of conquerors that politicians have made from 9/11. Notes to Basquiat (Death of Irony) reads, like an Islamic text, from right to left. This, along with Bennett's repeated use of the Islamic Shamsa pattern (that often adorns the inside cover of the Koran) as a barely sublimated visual metaphor of the flames that swirl across the city, might seem evidence that he too squarely lays the blame at the feet of Muslim extremists. But in this painting, an eighteenth-century British sea captain (Cook) not Bin Laden seems to command the planes on their deadly mission as he once had his ship.
More importantly, the painting is too layered and complex for simplistic political propaganda. It does not lay blame, show compassion or seek revenge. Instead, Bennett surveys the scene for signs in order to perform an open-ended hermeneutics whose only end is more interpretation. In this respect the 9/11 series is more like a seance than a vivisection. After all, Bennett converses with the dead, mainly with Basquiat, but also with Jackson Pollock and other ghosts. His muse is Benjamin’s angel of history, which appears constantly in his paintings as a witness for the forgotten dead. Bennett is a history painter; but the past he affirms is the phantom shadows of those trodden under the feet of the victorious.
Invariably, Bennett’s witness is accompanied by the sign of the cross, a recurring motif in the series. Notes to Basquiat (The Coming of the Light) (December 2001) is primarily about this witness figure. Its body, drawn in a hybrid Basquiat-Oenpelli X-ray style, is pinned to a Malevich cross on a gridded matrix. Transfixed in the whirlwind of history, New York is its new Golgotha. Where some perceive a chain of events, the witness sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. It would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm blows from Paradise towards the future. In its wake the pile of rubble grows skyward.
The main reference for Notes to Basquiat (The Coming of the Light) is not Basquiat’s imagery, but one of Bennett’s early paintings, The Coming of the Light (1987). Again echoing Benjamin, Bennett draws a direct link between civilisation and barbarism, or here Enlightenment and suicide. In the original painting, the two handed element holding a torch and a belt referred directly to the deaths in custody of Aboriginal prisoners. If the later painting has wider ramifications, it nevertheless affirms Bennett's commitment to the postcolonial issues of his earlier art.
For him, the world did not suddenly change on September 11, 2001; rather, the past again brightly flashed by, revealing the terrible complicity of modernity and colonialism. Like a graffiti artist hurrying at night, Bennett has to get it down. And like a graffiti artist, he writes in a deliberate assured way that, no matter how esoteric, can be read. However his hermeneutics is never closed; it is a palimpsest of signs on which we must in turn write our own interpretations.
Ian McLean is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Art, University of Western Australia