Memory Remains: Photographs from Hangar 17 mark tenth anniversary of September 11

By Nick Owen | 25 August 2011
A photo taken by Torres' mother at home in Barcelona when the second plane struck
9/11, as seen live on television in Barcelona, Spain. Photographed by Francesc Torres’ mother while they spoke by phone© Francesc Torres
Exhibition: Memory Remains by Francesc Torres, Imperial War Museum, London, until February 26 2012

Throughout his career, Spanish-American artist Francesc Torres has reflected on the diverse manifestations of culture, politics, memory and power.

His latest exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, Memory Remains, is a bold and haunting amalgam of all four. 

In 2009, Torres was granted rare access to Hangar 17 at John F Kennedy International Airport, a gaping space of over 80,000-square-feet.

Within the hangar lie the remnants deemed worth preserving from the September 11 attacks, taken from the 1.8 million tonnes of debris from Ground Zero.

For five weeks Torres daily confronted the legacy of terror and the ghosts of that fateful late-summer day, capturing images of objects that stand as symbolic substitutes to the victims.

“Look at it this way”, says Torres, relaying his experience, “it’s a hanger constructed to house a plane, which was transformed into a weapon used for the attack on the towers and now the sediment of that attack is here.

“With the sound of planes constantly flying overhead it was absolutely surreal”.

According to the photographer, the experience of walking around the hanger after the first day was so emotionally draining that he slept from four o’clock in the afternoon through to ten o’clock the next morning.

“I was absolutely exhausted; physically and emotionally...every single iota of energy I had was gone.”

Steel girders from the World Trade Center on display at the Imperial War Museum
A section of steel from the structure of the World Trade Center© Nick Owen
His efforts have produced some exceptional results, however, displayed on a rolling slideshow in a small room near the entrance of the museum.

Among the objects photographed are large shards of rusted, burnt steel, crumpled filing cabinets and a plethora of flattened Port Authority vehicles.

Some unexpected pieces of detritus were also found, including a nine-foot, three-dimensional Bugs Bunny, made completely bizarre when juxtaposed by a sign whose letters read chillingly: "That's All Folks!"

Prior to the Hangar 17 project, Torres documented the excavation of a mass Spanish Civil War grave that he said drew certain comparisons with the material at JFK.

“The clothing is something that just grabs you,” he says, “it’s very uncanny that nothing changes with the victims as historical subjects. 

“The clothing [in Hangar 17] was exactly the same as the clothing I’ve seen in Spain or in the former Yugoslavia; it all has the same patina.

“The victim becomes universal...the remains have that quality.”

Along with the photographs, the museum has also acquired a section of steel from the structure of the World Trade Center, displayed outside the projection room.

It is the first section of raw rusted steel from the ruins at Ground Zero – thought to be the box section from one of windows – to be displayed in the UK.

For the past year, pieces from the hangar have made their way to be placed in memorials in each of the 50 American states, as well as seven other countries across the globe. 

Some, but not all, of the remaining pieces will be housed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum near the site of the attack, which is something that concerns Torres.

“We have to preserve the hanger as a container. It’s an unbelievable narrative apparatus that had been created almost on the run”, he says.

With a lifelong interest in questions of human memory and meaning, Torres’ work is based on the concept that it is through the remains of history that memory remains.

His latest show is an unforgettable testament to those horrendous attacks that capped the 20th century almost a decade ago.

More photos from the exhibition:

The quintesential New York Cab, the only one preserved in Hangar 17
Though most of the vehicles at Hangar 17 came from first responders, this taxi, an emblem of daily life in New York, was also preserved.© Francesc Torres
Religious symbols cut by ironworkers as keepsakes for the victims' relatives
During the recovery, ironworkers cut religious symbols out of pieces of steel and give them as keepsakes to family members© Francesc Torres
View through a portion of the broadcast antenna that fell from the North Tower
View through a portion of the broadcast antenna that fell from the top of the north tower© Francesc Torres
Three panels salvaged from the subway station beneath the towers.
Panels salvaged from the subway station under the World Trade Center. The markings indicate the area had been searched by rescue workers for victims© Francesc Torres
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