There have been countless works of art addressing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon, but I can't imagine how any of them will be more thoughtful than Foreign Correspondence, an artists book by Cincinnati visual artist Diana Duncan Holmes and her husband, poet Timothy Riordan. The work will be on display in the most public of spaces, the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. On Sept. 11, Riordan will read passages from the book. Throughout the month, pages will be turned at intervals, giving visitors the opportunity to view the entire work.
You'll see plenty of artistic responses to Sept. 11. The challenge is for the artists to understand the contradictions of finding something beautiful in such an ugly event.
In Foreign Correspondence, Riordan's words strike a balance between asking intelligent questions about our society's way of life and comforting us with beautiful prose. His lines for "pax Americana" — reprinted here — are worth repeating:
Hallucination or daytime TV,
Paradise found & lost
Like Rome's unrivaled empire.
The new world order a market of tarnished pleasures
And exorbitant profits,
Swollen defense budget,
A pox spreading disease.
No state sovereign
Under the rule of terror;
No lesson learned
From treaties of Pax,
Only pages of violated print.
Bodily fluids ooze
Riordan is a poet and a professor of education at Xavier University. Holmes is a more traditional artist, a veteran photographer who teaches at Northern Kentucky University. They reside in Clifton Heights, surrounded by numerous cats and tall stalks of bamboo in a bright and cozy bungalow.
Riordan and Holmes are established members of Cincinnati's arts community, but you wouldn't guess that from their carefree manner. Their book art collaborations are in various college and museum collections, but they act like any next-door neighbor.
Up close, their warm personality makes an imprint on Foreign Correspondence. Its large pages, containing Holmes' drawings, stenciled etches and photographs joined with Riordan's penciled script, offer a warm glow to a work that purposefully appears raw and unfinished.
Granted, there are limitations to book art. The medium itself binds the art to something static, small and intimate.
Most of us experienced Sept. 11 by watching the events unfold on the news, and so on one level film and video seem best suited for addressing that day.
But there are conceptual aspects to Foreign Correspondence that expand its vision. Holmes appropriates magazine ads and newspaper text into the book's artful pages. The boundaries between and among media, poetry, photography and drawing are crossed on every page.
The impact of this project is therapeutic. Its function and value lie in its ability to help us heal and communicate with others our own thoughts about what happened a year ago. The book has a social agenda, and that's to be expected from Holmes' photography.
At the same time, Riordan's poetry keeps the work quiet and contemplative. Its subtlety is also its greatest attribute.
Foreign Correspondence is a work focused on the past, but its words and design make you think about the future. As a result, you wonder where other artists might go with their responses to Sept. 11. Ten years from now, much 9/11 art will cease to resonate. They'll be historical artifacts no different from World War II enlistment posters.
Sept. 11 response art is destined to be a short-lived trend, and I see that as a good thing. Still, I'm confident Foreign Correspondence will continue to resonate.
There's a diversity of artistic voices among its pages. The various drawings and poems enable the book to become separate, individual canvases.
There's also a great deal of humor in the work. It's a welcome reminder to laugh at the world around us, no matter what happens.
Tim Riordan will read from Foreign Correspondence at 7 p.m. Sept. 11 in the garden room at the Main Library.