Reflecting Absence by Michael Arad and Peter Walker

Michael Arad and Peter Walker

Reflecting Absence, 2011, Granite and bronze, The Memorial Plaza, Manhattan, New York, Pygmalion Karatzas / Arcaid / Bridgeman Images

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Depth Dimensions

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Michael Banner

‘Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord’ (Psalm 130).

In the Old Testament the depths often refer to the depths of the sea (Psalm 69:2, 14; Isaiah 51:10; Ezekiel 27:34), and are a figure for imperilment, or even death. In this psalm, the unfathomable oceans signify the profound (but unspecified) sea of troubles from which the psalmist cries out to God.

Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence in Manhattan’s Memorial Plaza marks the absence of the Twin Towers, destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It does so by siting two square voids on the footprints of the lost towers. Both of these vast and cavernous spaces (200 x 200 ft and 35 ft deep) are surrounded by dark polished walls of granite. On the lip of the walls are inscribed the names of those who died in the attacks, as well as those killed in the bombing of the towers in 1993: 2983 in total.

Down these walls, the water falls in thin veils to the pools at the bottom of each void, out of which the waters drain and disappear into two further square spaces (void within void, depth beneath depth)—as if vanishing into nothingness.

The two pools simply but, given their scale, very dramatically, represent what unfathomable depths of loss and despair are opened up by the experience of arbitrary and untimely death. From depths like these, and through seemingly unstanchable waterfalls of tears, human voices may find themselves in the psalmist’s company in reaching up toward the heavens.

The original design for the monument placed the pools in a bare, bleak, and vast plaza, but that scheme was modified at the instigation of the 9/11 Memorial Jury by the planting of a grid of some 400 trees. The addition of the trees, without detracting from the solemn statement made by the abysmal pools, places the absences they proclaim in a context of growth, renewal and rebirth—for the voice of lament affirms life in the very act of mourning, even if it cannot presently find words of hope.