Facing the Waves
by Glenn Ligon
The sky on September 11, 2001 was cloudless and blue: a perfect day. I was at home in Brooklyn on vacation from a residency in Berlin. Between the weather, the impending change from Deutschmarks to Euros and the neo-Nazis, Berlin was hard for me. It was the first time I had lived outside the United States and I discovered that I preferred the idea of being abroad to the reality of it. Andy Warhol said that the most beautiful thing in Tokyo, Stockholm and Florence was McDonald’s, and many nights in Berlin were spent at a McDonald’s - a refuge from the foreignness of foreign places. Although my trip home was short, it was a pleasure to sleep in my own bed, watch reruns of Friends and use the toothpaste and language I like. By being away from America, I discovered I was an American.

That morning, after I made coffee and got a yogurt out of the refrigerator, I turned on the television. Every channel had an image of flames coming from the upper floors of one of the World Trade Center towers. The phone rang. It was my friend Thelma, who lived a few blocks away. “Do you believe this shit?” she said. We silently watched the TV together for a few minutes. I got off the phone with Thelma and went to the roof of my building. From there I could see grey-brown smoke drifting over the East River towards Brooklyn. The neighborhood was silent: no cars, no sirens and no voices. Thinking that the view would be better on TV than on my roof, I went back to my apartment. In the few seconds it took me to walk down the stairs, the south tower collapsed. Soon after, the north tower fell too and the television was filled with images of people running ahead of a wave of ash and debris that enveloped the streets of lower Manhattan. I spent the next couple of days in my apartment, afraid to go outside and mesmerized by endless replays of the towers falling on TV.
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In 2002 I went to David Hammons’ Concerto in Black and Blue exhibition at Ace Gallery in New York. At the gallery entrance I was given a tiny pressure-activated LED flashlight no bigger than a gumball. When clicked on, the flashlight gave off a blue light which lasted until the pressure was released. I went through a door into the main gallery space, which comprised more than twenty thousand square feet spread over several rooms with twenty-foot-high ceilings. There were no lights on in the gallery and, as I soon discovered, it was completely empty except for the blue light emitted from flashlights of other people walking around the space with me. When I wrote about the exhibition for an art magazine, I focused on its title, suggesting that the wealth of historical, political and emotional associations we bring to the words black and blue produce the meaning of the work. But something else was going on that I failed to mention. Ace Gallery was located only a mile or so from what is now known as Ground Zero. When I saw Hammons’ installation, the darkness of 9/11 was still present in the city as a kind of low-level anxiety, fueled by terror alerts, the war in Afghanistan and fear of the future. As I was walked through those empty rooms, the unease that many other New Yorkers and I had to suppress just to get through the day began to wash over me. To enter Hammons’ installation required dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. Concerto and Black and Blue forced us to acknowledge that to live in the world is to live without guarantees, to face the unknown, to grope around in the dark. The darkness of the gallery was the darkness of the world, and yet, Hammons made us embrace it, find meaning, or even a kind of joy in it. As I stood in the center of one of those empty rooms, I thought “Oh, this is what it means to be alive.” It was a feeling I thought I had forgotten.
Catherine Opie, Untitled #4 (Surfers), 2003, C-print, 51 1/4 x 41 1/8 (130.2 x 104.5 cm) Framed Ed. of 5
Catherine Opie, Shivia, 2003, C-print, 31 1/4 x 24 3/4 in (79.4 x 62.9 cm) Framed Ed. of 5
At the 2004 Whitney Biennial Cathie Opie showed large-scale photographs of surfers taken in Malibu. In that noisy, crowded, cul-de-sac of a biennial they were a moment of quiet expansiveness. In the photos there is no shoreline and the sky approaches the color of the sea, making the space seem endless. The surfers are alone or in small groups and are depicted neither riding the waves nor wiping out. Dark specks against the blue-grey sea, they are waiting for the waves to come in. Opie has also made half-length portraits of the surfers just after they have emerged from the water. They are a motley group, men and women, old and young, and of all different ethnicities, with open faces, still flush with the excitement of having ridden a few good ones. In the midst of yet another war, the curtailing of civil liberties and rampant xenophobia they seem untroubled, even serene. Jane Jacobs said that America did not believe the rest of the world is real, but when I look at Opie’s photos, I am hopeful. The surfers represent a willingness to face what comes, which is, really, a willingness to be in the world, to take it seriously. To be in this world, at this moment, means you have to face the waves.