September 11 continues to haunt our collective consciousness. Last month, when Hamas militants launched a lethal incursion into Israel, the 2001 terrorist attack was conjured up by countless commentators as Israel’s “9/11 moment.” Such specific media proselytization is one of many recent reminders of the unending cultural and political impact 9/11 has to this day.
Discourse like this may frame visitors’ experience of “Free Fall,” artist Avery Singer’s new British show examining the September 11 attacks and the lingering collective trauma left in their wake. Staged at Hauser & Wirth, London, the show takes Singer’s recollections of 9/11—which she witnessed as a young girl from her Tribeca balcony only two blocks away—and repositions them within a hazy computer-generated context staged in recreated World Trade Center lobbies.
“I found myself watching people fall to their death wondering if they’d chosen to jump,” Singer says of these memories. “I evacuated downtown and that night, my family and I slept in the projection booth at MoMA, where my father worked as a projectionist.”
Thinking about the projected images of 9/11—ubiquitous and endless television broadcasts of the towers aflame and people leaping to their deaths—is clearly of deep political interest to Singer. “Free Fall” wrestles with ideas of mediated trauma, mass media dissemination and the lasting images of that infamous date that continue to tug at our consciousnesses, especially today when images of suffering are everywhere, particularly with the 24/7 coverage of the conflicts in Israel and Ukraine.
Now in her 30s working as an established artist, Singer (b. 1987) reimagines the possibilities of technology and painting using 3D-design software to transfer her images to canvas, where paint and liquid rubber are applied over such images to ultimately assert each piece as a painting. This aesthetic tendency is insisted upon in Free Fall to somewhat equivocal ends, where Singer takes images of “famous faces” from September 11 (such as “dust lady” Marcy Borders) and applies a glazed, gridded design that keeps us at a distance while also attempting to intimately ingratiate us with each figure.
Given these artworks are housed within a recreated World Trade Center lobby and office space, the show has an eerie, unsettling feeling.
“In confronting this topic, I wanted to use art as a kind of conceptual mediator to create an emotional landscape of this history for the audience to enter into and define their own experience,” Singer says in the exhibition materials. By marrying the mise-en-scène of the World Trade Centers with digitized re-imaginings of prominent “survivors,” Singer seeks to place us both inside and outside this larger historical trauma—one most often defined by its mass media images. The exhibition situates viewers in the windowless four walls of a destroyed tower, with highly processed portraits of well-known “survivors” serving as a symbolic window out.
At the entrance to the show, a bank of faux elevators greets viewers. These elevators offer an unnaturally silent and indifferent presence, inviting philosophical questions about going and coming, entrances and exits, fate and destiny in a banal, even ironic, way. As a means of exiting the World Trade Center, the elevators did little to help many that day; for those here, they don’t provide any use either.
Singer embraces the dullness of bygone corporate American architecture—as she remembers the World Trade Center, where her mother worked—with vanilla couches, cheap plastic blinds and unnaturally waxy green plants. A windowless corridor leading to the main space completely suffocates us, with its neutral tones belying an otherwise terrifying reminder of entrapment—both of daily corporate existence and much of human life on that September date.
After the office ordeal, the main exhibition space opens with its floor covered in shredded paper and transfixing canvases of these well-known personalities. There is Deepfake Rachel (2023), a portrait of Rachel Uchitel, a woman featured on the cover of the New York Post holding a leaflet for her missing fiancé. The shredded paper underfoot takes on an ironic tone after making the connection, with the painting a darkened close-up of Uchitel encaged by a scattering spray paint layer. The reframing of Uchitel here, glamorized with new jewelry and make-up, feels controlled and equally disordered, calling attention to image-making processes of, and responses to, horror in media that Susan Sontag famously called “regarding the pain of others.”
The portrait of Borders, meanwhile, is another so-called “deepfake.” The 2001 photograph of Borders covered in soot from the attack was infamously disseminated across newspapers worldwide, with the sinister gray ash and corporate clothing a jarring visual metaphor of destruction in contemporary American life.
“I allowed myself to be intuitively led by [such] images and began to make computer models of them,” Singer says, “to memorialize my own experience and create monuments for that moment in time.” The resultant portraits prove at once deeply affecting and deifying—with Borders given another aestheticized treatment, almost like a Hollywood star—stressing how trauma and the artifice of media production greatly inform our lingering perception of 9/11. (Indeed, Uchitel later launched a career as a media personality; Borders died of cancer in 2015.)
The fact that these paintings are rubric Instagram-sized tiles doesn’t seem unintentional either, especially as Singer acknowledges how preoccupied she is with mass media conveying trauma before social media: “It’s one of the last traumatic events in the Western world that happened before social media. Now mass shooters go on Facebook and livestream it.” The grid size seems another ironic touch.
The physical adjustments made to the computerized image—such as paint splotches and rubber—situate the work within the practice painting again if they also nod to our current image-saturated age of the Instagram square. Still, as Sontag said: “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” The originating source for these paintings—a photograph of these famous faces—can’t help but sit powerfully and movingly behind each remade “star portrait” of Borders and Uchitel.
Other paintings include similar renderings of people impacted by September 11, as well as a video game-like take on a severed and bloodied hand, claimed to be found in the physical aftermath.
Toward the end, a physical bookstore serves as an exit, evoking a peculiar sense that it is all part-movie set and part-historical display. With shelves adorned with books covering “Women’s Studies,” “Psychology” and “Relationships,” the self-help titles invite more ironic suggestions—whether because of the corporate banality, place within a former World Trade Center building, or indeed both. The bookshop was also recreated from Singer’s recollections, including her memory of titles like Chicken Soup for the Soul appearing at the store.
“Free Fall,” unapologetically embracing its bygone staid corporate backdrop, proves a nostalgic, ironizing and hazy exercise pondering mass media and its relationship to collective trauma. The mise en scène of the lost Towers—with somewhat pitiful gestures like waxy green plants and a self-help array of books—does physically remind viewers of the depths of destruction and loss the attacks caused in their wake, fracturing a moment in time from pre-9/11 to post. As for her works, Singer’s eye to localize the trauma of 9/11 in the so-called “famous faces” like Borders and Stan Honda in intimate (if computerized) close-ups is an apt visual metaphor for how technology and media can go hand-in-hand today in disseminating staged and fictionalized portraits of suffering—including literal deepfakes.
The show ultimately evokes an unsettling and muted feeling, perhaps because of the many ironic gestures (such as shredded paper and useless elevators). But irony is an apt mode to provoke contemplation and a sharp tool for stimulating thought in our sometimes-desensitized technological age. Singer, a millennial who has evidently been heavily influenced by our hyper-image-saturated zeitgeist, uses “Free Fall” to give us a daring array of images and physical sets to re-experience and then unthread the way many of us remember the attacks: as a horrifying news reel blinking back at us on television.
“Free Fall” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, London until December 22.