When James Tunick ’03 removed his Sept. 11 sculpture from Cross Campus, it was surrounded by a well-worn ring of dirt and brown grass, covered in students’ scrawls, and bound for the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine.
The sculpture — two stark, vertical, wooden planks, an emblem of the fallen twin towers — was throughout the fall Yale’s most visible and most visited reminder of the attacks.
Even as it sits, now, in the Ezra Stiles College common room, across from a jukebox and big-screen TV, the sculpture has quickly become a record of Yalies’ complicated feelings about Sept. 11.
The sculpture was designed to be written on, to create a “dialogue,” said Tunick.
Half a year after the attacks, the sculpture has become one part ongoing conversation and one part anthropological artifact. It lacks the sleek lines of a Brancusi, but its genius is in its dual role as sculpture and public forum.
“I wanted to give people voices when they needed it the most,” said Tunick. Tunick said he came up with the idea for the sculpture after seeing similar memorials in Washington Square Park in New York City.
Clifford Chanin, the founder and director of the Legacy Project — a New York-based organization devoted to studying the artwork of great cataclysms like Hiroshima — said that in America, disasters like Sept. 11 have become publicly mourned events.
“We live in a very public age, driven by media concerns,” he said. “The idea of a public manifestation of mourning is in keeping with the times.”
Working with Emily Eidenier ’03 and Austin Van ’03, Tunick built the memorial and installed it on Cross Campus. Within a week, he said, the sculpture was completely covered in writing.
The writing itself is hardly a cross section of American public opinion. While polls show that Americans emphatically support military action in Afghanistan, the sculpture is covered in messages of peace.
“Trust God, revenge is not the answer,” wrote one person.
Still, there are a smattering of hawkish messages, some that Tunick said were hateful.
“What can you say about hate, except that it’s a reflection of what goes on in the community,” he said.
“Nuke Afghanistan,” said one writer. But the message had been crossed out and a flower, now dry, was taped over it.
“[The flower] is like a band-aid, like it’s an open wound,” Tunick said.
One message echoed a banner that had been hung on Old Campus this fall and removed, amidst a flurry of controversy over whether it was hateful.
“Kill them all and let God sort them out,” the message said.
And on the towers, there is a patchwork collection of crude images, mostly of doves, hearts and crosses. One of the towers has a curving drawing of a tree dripping red blood in the shape of a heart. The other skyscraper bears a picture of two children holding hands with the caption: “Remember this?”
The sculpture also has its moments of simple anguish. “I miss my first grade teacher — dead,” one inscription reads.
“I miss you Jen, Tower #1, 87th floor,” reads another.
Chanin linked the sculpture to a wider trend of memorials, like the one created after the Oklahoma City bombing, built on the idea of emptiness. In writing on the sculpture, he said, people were filing the empty space — real and metaphorical — created by the Sept. 11 dead.
“I think there’s this need for imaginative restoration,” he said. “Art fills the space where people are now missing.”
In November, the magazine Rolling Stone published a full-page, color picture of the statue resting on Cross Campus, and the sculpture has since been featured prominently in exhibitions at the Digital Media Center for the Arts and the Yale Cabaret.
The sculpture sat at the media center for more than a month at the entrance to the exhibition. The exhibit’s curator, Ken Lovell, said that the sculpture did not at first have any special impact, but that as a blunt reflection of local sentiment it was “eye-catching.”
“The impermanence of it made sense,” he said. “It was easily put together, it was meant to be an everyday object.”
As students continue to write on it, albeit in smaller volume, the statue has in some ways defied the nation’s decreasing interest in the aftermath of the terror attacks.
Tunick said he had received offers for the statue, including one from Ezra Stiles Master Susan Rieger, although he declined to state the offers’ sizes. He said he has no plans to sell it.
“I’d really like to lend it out to museums, galleries and schools,” he said.