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Happenings: Reading Pages in a Picture

Today’s post comes from Nicole M. Roylance, Coordinator of Public Education and Information

Amitava Kumar speaking at the Artful Dodger on Tuesday, February 8, 2011. The unconventional installation replicates that used by organizers of an exhibition entitled, “Here is New York – A Democracy of Photographs” on display in New York City in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001..

When tragedy strikes- what do you do? How do you make sense of a world when it is in pieces? What do you rely on when the world reveals itself to be unreliable? How do you find meaning? Ami Kumar, Professor of English, explored these questions raised by four photographs taken on September 11, 2001 at the Artful Dodger yesterday. Kumar had discussed the photos with his fall writing course and continued the conversation with Artful Dodger attendants.

Larry Towell, Man reads a piece of paper in ashen street, 2001, Digital ink print, Purchase, Advisory Council for Photography and additional funds provided by Lee Balter, Mario Del Pozzo, Steven Roffer, Margaret Smith-Bourke and Scott Wilder, 2002.20.14

Kumar was particularly drawn to Larry Towell’s [Man Reads a Piece of Paper in Ashen Street]. The photograph captures the debris that landed in the streets of New York City following the attack on the World Trade Center. The street is littered with papers and piles of ash from the burning buildings. Amidst the rubble, a man in a suit holds a piece of paper up and appears to be reading it. Kumar, as a reader and a writer, identified with the man. It reminded Kumar of his need as a writer to find words to make meaning. He said he often wonders what another person is reading and what they are dreaming of while they read. Kumar recognizes and has experienced the power of the written word. He said, “People find their way by reading.” The man in the street is looking to the page, looking for words, and still appears utterly lost. Kumar observed, “Someone is not being saved.”

Alex Webb, Smoke behind woman and child on rooftop, 2001, 2002.20.11

Those in attendance were particularly drawn to Alex Webb’s [Smoke behind woman and child on rooftop]. The photograph shows a woman and an infant seated on a rooftop balcony with a distant view of the smoking towers. The viewer presumes it is a mother and child. Those in attendance had differing opinions about why the photograph was taken and how to interpret the scene. Kumar questioned, “Why should we monumentalize our suffering?”

Many in attendance were reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” which considers the painting The Fall of Icarus attributed to Peiter Bruegel:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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