/ 20 March 2003

Art rises from the ashes

New York artist Neil Bernstein (42) strides in, kitted out in trademark black. His watch is set to New York time to keep in touch with the fluctuating goings-on on Wall Street.Bernstein — artist, stockbroker and architect — is exhibiting his acclaimed Ground Zero Memorial Works at the Sandton Civic Gallery as part of The Five Continent G-L-A-D (Global Love Against Destruction) Exhibition.The exhibition, which opened on March 6, includes work by United States artist Salvatore Principe, photographs by Bulgarian Zlatka Ivanova, and local artist Wessel Oosthuizen’s photographic essay on a South African rescue team in Asia Minor after a great earthquake in that region.Bernstein has been dubbed somewhat of an “outlaw” on the American art scene due to his uncompromising and often apocalyptic vision. Last year, to mark the first anniversary of September 11, his exhibition at Ground Zero was seen by more than 650 000 people passing through the space to pay homage to the dead. From South Africa the exhibition will travel to more than 20 countriesand major cities, including Tokyo, Rio, Amsterdam and Prague.

You’ve called your work Ground Zero. What is this exhibition all about?

It’s a series of large-scale works of images evoked by September 11, containing Trade tower ashes, notes and debris.

How did you get the ashes?

I had special access to the site because I was studying to be a stockbroker in the World Trade Centre complex and was, in fact, supposed to be there on the 11th, but my ride let me down. So on September 13 I walked into the area with a briefcase, in an Armani suit and collected the ashes and debris in coffee cups.

Why would you do something like that?

Immediately after the towers went down, I knew that these works would be needed. This was a holocaust type event, the first of its sort in the US.

What’s with the fascination for this dark stuff?

For the past 20 years I have been doing Holocaust-type art works. I have a very visceral connection with Holocaust events because I’m Jewish, I’m a Vietnam-era veteran and I’ve experienced monumentally destructive events in my life that require some sort of reconciliation. Art is the best way to do that.

What is significance of the towers to you?

It’s not really about the buildings themselves. They were simply an icon to the speed and intensity of world finance. The height of the towers epitomised the potential for the climb to the top. The rise to the top can occur really rapidly but can also collapse in seconds, as they did.

How did this event affect you on a personal level?

As a human being I greatly identified with the absolute and total collapse of it all. It’s the human condition. It was the collapse of a symbol, the epitome of the power of capitalism versus the poor, the ugly, the forgotten and the tortured. In my mind it is the imagery of mankind. But I think art must stretch itself beyond the personal. I believe art is at its best when it purposefully expresses the collective consciousness of its time.

Many people who saw the exhibition in New York last year were expecting a more sentimental and “honouring approach” — some were even angered by the way you portrayed your response to the event. Why?

Most of the art work that I saw post-September 11 was sublimated to the point of the absolute personal. It failed to supply an effective catalyst for public transformation of the resulting disenchantment and grief. I mean a personal testimony is momentary and rather small. People expected photographs and teddy bears, sentimentality. I believe my big, abstract work conveys the horror and the beauty more clearly. The other principle issue that was driving these paintings was the absolute voyeuristic approach taken by the media. It was vulgar and deterioritive, both sociologically and psychologically.

What’s your favourite piece on the exhibition?

The “empty boxes” series. They speak about emptiness. They’re done in sepias and white, with charcoal and then burned with propane torches. They contain trade tower ashes and pieces of notepaper from the offices in the World Trade Centre. Each has a time and date, which correlates to the event.The empty-box motif came to me from having the tower ashes in my studio for a year and half. They kinda spoke to me. The empty box is a dense metaphor. The trade towers were huge boxes and they are coffins now. The families of the victims never had a chance to bury their dead, so the boxes are empty. Think about life — it’s a collection of objects and sediment in a box. When one dies people come to collect the things that are us and put them into boxes. The image also speaks to contemporary art, which for decades (since the abstract expressionists of New York) has been at an almost complete loss in providing the public with an effective container for transformation. The postmodern human condition is one of almost total emptiness and vacancy. It is my purpose to provide the public with a meaningful and binding visual experience.

G-L-A-D runs at the Sandton Civic Gallery until March 24. Tel: (011) 881 6432.