In “Walls Collapsed,” I explore how architectural design can invoke the uncanny in seemingly familiar objects and art forms. Inspired by Daniel Libeskind’s jarring design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and Art Spiegelman’s larger-than-life graphic narrative In the Shadow of No Towers, I wanted to make a large-scale book that did not adhere to the traditional definition of a “book” at all.
I was very interested in how Libeskind defamiliarized familiar objects, invoking the uncanny, in the Jewish Museum in Berlin by placing them within overwhelming architecture that interrupts a viewer’s expected perceptions. As Young writes, “instead of merely housing the collection, this building seeks to estrange it from the viewers’ own preconceptions.” Libeskind’s design looks like a zigzagging lightning bolt from above, it is a shiny silver building of unexpected sharp angles standing beside “the stolid Baroque façade of the Berlin Museum.” Inside the building, Libeskind places voids “as a physical interference with chronology” that become “completely ‘unusable space’ jutting throughout the structure and outside it.” When designing a narrative of trauma, the concepts of an unusable void and unexpectedly interrupted chronology seem especially appropriate.
In Plate 10 of In The Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman does just the opposite of Libeskind by portraying the uncanny of 9/11 within the boundaries of two perfectly straight, rectangular towers. The image is particularly jarring because the panels inside the towers detail Spiegelman’s reaction to those very towers collapsing. Instead of scattering panels around the page haphazardly, as he does in several previous plates, Spiegelman ends the series with perfect, straight rectangles. But the subject matter is just as traumatic as previous plates, and even contains an image of Spiegelman holding a bomb that explodes in his face. While Young makes a valid point about jarring architecture representing a traumatic history, Spiegelman invokes the uncanny by using familiar shapes to house unbelievable images. Both are successful in defamiliarizing the familiar. Libeskind’s unique architecture makes the museum-goer reconsider the seemingly familiar objects within his walls. Spiegelman’s wild anxiety in his panels, on the other hand, forces the reader to see the uncanny in such trauma encased within perfect rectangular towers. Both use architectural or spatial form to invoke the uncanny in the viewer, but in opposite ways.
I attempted to use both theories in my book. Using the page borders like Libeskind’s walls, I wanted to explore defamiliarizing the form of books themselves. White pages of awkwardly large and unfamiliar shapes are juxtaposed against perfectly rectangular black pages that contain tower-shaped voids, “unusable” spaces that take on a new and different meaning when contained in a book.
I chose the two towers to focus on as repeating images because they dominate Spiegelman’s narrative as well as the master narrative of September 11th; they are familiar shapes that take on a new meaning when they are removed from the page in various ways. The first and last white pages, which are shaped similarly, display two familiar scenes: the New York skyline before and after September 11th. The dramatic page borders force the viewer to reconsider these scenes in a new way. Alternatively, the three black pages house shocking images: first the outline of the twin towers, then the outline of the towers with the rest of the page as voids, and finally the towers as voids themselves. These shapes, or more particularly the voids of these shapes, are less familiar and much more unnatural. Because of this, they are housed within perfect rectangles to draw attention to the images themselves, especially in comparison to the images on the white pages with irregular page borders.
How to bind the book was an issue I had worried about from the beginning of the project, but ultimately the decision to tie the pages together loosely with picture wire added to the book’s strangeness. The binding also added a somewhat unfinished aspect that I appreciated, as no narrative on trauma can even be fully completed or neatly bound into one clear story.
The finished project is simple, but I think it successfully encompasses several different layers of meaning and represents how much meaning we assign to objects in the wake of trauma – especially when those objects are forever gone.