Empire of Signs

Investigating Imperialism With Julian LaVerdiere

Anne Pasternak at Creative Time, the arts group that commissioned the bioluminescent beacon, recommended the artists to The New York Times Magazine when its art director began looking for responses to September 11. LaVerdiere and Myoda submitted Phantom Towers, two hazy beacons of light (created digitally) emanating from ground zero, and it ended up on the cover. Creative Time put the image on their Web site and got 13,000 unsolicited responses. As LaVerdiere described it at the time: "It's an emotional response more than anything. Those towers are like ghost limbs. We can feel them even though they're not there anymore."

Meanwhile, architects Gustavo Bonevardi and John Bennett had come up with virtually the same idea, except that theirs called for the lights to be set on a barge in the Hudson. When the two teams heard about each other, they got together to do the Tribute in Light proposal. Architect Richard Nash Gould, who had a similar idea, joined later. Giuliani immediately nixed the idea, but Bloomberg OK'd it. LaVerdiere says he and Myoda have been approached about working on the permanent memorial, and "we're considering it."

"This is the Vegas Napoleon": LaVerdiere with his trio of Imperial Dragsters.
photo: Robin Holland
"This is the Vegas Napoleon": LaVerdiere with his trio of Imperial Dragsters.

"Pre- and post-September 11 is such a clean, decisive stroke in the way I address the work that I want to make," says LaVerdiere. "It's definitely helped give me a focus." Now he has "the desire to bring a message to people, even if it's still something of a riddle. I try to steer clear of didacticism. Although I want to make my symbols very recognizable, I'm not trying to make my conclusion recognizable."

While working on the Tribute in Light, LaVerdiere met a team of engineers and architects using laser range scanners to measure the volume of ground zero's bathtub. They were connected to the team that scanned the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks in case they were ever destroyed by terrorists.

LaVerdiere asked the team to scan Penn Station's last cornerstone eagle, now sitting in the courtyard at Cooper Union's engineering school. September 11 had inspired him to revisit that demolition, he says, to better understand "the importance of the symbology of our iconic buildings as well as the multiple trajectories of American imperialism."

Because he deals so often with the science and architecture of the past—the whole history of "progress"—much of LaVerdiere's work is about memorializing, about building reliquaries for lost technologies and obsolete belief systems. At his studio, he showed me a piece he made in college, an armillary sphere illustrating Ptolemy's system, a universe with the earth in the center. "I liked these Enlightenment-age models that would try to rationally illustrate these irrational systems," he says. Other pieces have incorporated 19th-century patent medicine bottles, which he collects. He's still interested in the "snake oil" phenomenon, the way something can be packaged to charm and bamboozle the public. "An ideological WMD," he says, describing a drawing in "Goliath Concussed" of his neoclassical lantern, much enlarged and mounted on a missile launcher.

LaVerdiere also collects safety lamps once used in uranium mines. Three appear in the show—one red, one white, one blue. They were given to miners who thought they were ill because of mine gas. Of course, the miners were actually suffering from radiation poisoning, and the lamps detected methane gas, not radiation. LaVerdiere has replaced the wicks with tiny pawns.

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