Unbearable Lightness

The Tribute in Light

The Tribute in Light

It’s a trick of the light.

Depending on where you stand, the “Tribute in Light” memorial looks more like a pillar of fire descending from heaven than a recreation of the World Trade Center. You’d be forgiven if, after 9/11, you thought you’d never crane your neck to look that high up again, because there it is, against all gods, a great Babel tower siphoning the light of stars barely visible above lower Manhattan. It’s as though the flood lamps huddling around ground zero suddenly looked up one by one to create an ethereal halo in the sky.

But what is it a memorial to, exactly? “Tribute” not only summons the confusion of that September morning, when you thought Tower Two was momentarily obscured by smoke or blocked by its twin — in fact, it had already collapsed — it also mirrors the ambiguity of light itself, it’s both a wave and a particle. And it makes you wonder, Whose bright idea was this, anyway?

Sponsored in part by David Rockefeller, it is the brainchild of not one but two groups, both of which independently conceived of a light memorial shortly after the attacks. They combined their efforts last fall, and in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of New York, received funding from several agencies to realize their vision. Originally called “Towers of Light,” the title was changed to be more inclusive, to honor the dead as well as the World Trade Center. But one of the groups’ names betrays a blatant insensitivity to the loss of life and reveals its true intent: PRISM: Project to Restore Immediately the Skyline of Manhattan.

Don’t be fooled; nothing has been restored. What you see is what you get, a skyline without substance, a tribute that lacks soul. You can find better replicas of the towers from any vendor on the street.

According to lighting designer Paul Marantz, the ghostly display is intended to do more than just replace the WTC; it’s meant to rebuild hope by “filling the void left after September 11.” In Greek mythology, the void was filled when Prometheus stole fire from the heavens as a gift to humanity. For his defiance, he was bound to a mountain crag where an eagle gnawed out his liver. Every night his liver was restored, and every morning the eagle swooped in to feast once more. Day after day, Prometheus was doomed for all eternity, a reminder to mankind of the high price to be paid for tricking the gods.

“Tribute” is powered free-of-charge by Con Edison. It uses 88 special $1,000 light bulbs, donated by General Electric, which emit 7,000 watts of electricity each. That’s over 600,000 watts creating a mile-high shaft visible within a radius of 20 miles. But heading downtown from the upper West Side, it’s just a pale beam emerging tentatively from dusk. It’s not until you’re downtown that you’re able to discern it’s actually two columns, like the spotlights that usually herald a movie premiere or a gala event. Given that the light source is adjacent to Regal Cinemas’ 16-screen multiplex and powered by a generator in the posh Embassy Suites hotel, both of these possibilities seem more likely than the reality.

At the base of the memorial, two platforms are set up like launch pads, separated at a diagonal by roughly half a block, across West Street from where the real towers once stood. Each square is comprised of 44 cannons projecting 44 independent columns of blue-white light. Walking right up to the perimeter of Tower One, raised on an altar of scaffolding twenty feet high, you can watch the light blast off as if from the crown of your head. Unfiltered light literally towers above so that no matter where you stand or turn, there it is, terrifyingly vertical, defying the curved space of known physics. All around, the emanations creep in through side streets, blue incandescence haunting the white limestone of financial buildings with an eerie glow.

When dust from the debris removal drifts west and enters the columns, the heat from the bulbs forces it to rise and the towers become a swirl of particles. The effect of watching their ascension is dizzying. At a certain spot in the sky difficult to determine, the columns of light begin to destabilize. They seem almost to be tipping, leaning into each other for support while simultaneously buckling outward. As the integrity of the towers is increasingly compromised the further up you gaze, more and more light disperses across the sky, like waves rippling out in a pool of water. When the columns touch in the upper atmosphere the two again become one.

Those with faith might liken this intersection to the place where souls meet, at the entrance to a tunnel the terminus of which is pure light. But it’s more like the bull’s eye of a targeting system, a laser aimed at a people a world away shivering in darkness, without electricity. This is where “Tribute” stops being a memorial and starts being a portent, an Axis of Light that remembers not the dead but the need for violent retribution. Marantz’s ray of hope turns out merely to be a line in the sand.

At 11:30 p.m., Con Edison cuts the juice and the towers collapse. This time they fall in reverse, as the lights that created them shoot like twin rockets reaching escape velocity. And then they’re gone. Again.

Night after night, the towers are extinguished this way, over and over as midnight approaches. And day after day, they are rebuilt anew, photon by photon — today, tomorrow, and the next after that in a series of power surges embraced by a city impatient to heal. The ultimate failure of “Tribute in Light” is not in the wasteful discharge of energy, however. Nor is it in the macabre reenactment of the towers’ original demise. Rather, as with the regeneration of a tortured liver, it’s in the promise of their shameful resurrection, all for the sake of a ruined skyline.

Perhaps viewed from outside New York City, with enough distance, “Tribute” could inspire. But not here, and not yet. As the work continues in the searing glare of endless day that is ground zero, the memorial gets washed out by the older, pre-existing brightness of the flood lamps. This is the only tribute of light there can possibly be, the one that looks inward, not to heaven, but down to the scorched earth, where heads bow in prayer and bend in toil. The void doesn’t need to be filled; it’s already a concentrated singularity, so luminous, so dense, like a universe that is still waiting to be reborn.

Paul W. Morris has been involved with the website in several capacities since early 2001, including editor, marketing consultant, event producer, and contributor. He was an editor at Viking Penguin and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review before becoming a freelance gun for hire. He’s killed time at Entertainment Weekly and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia staring into the abyss, but nothing stared back. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including his introduction to a recent translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The former Director of Literary Programs at PEN America and Vice President of the Authors Guild, he currently serves as the Executive Director of the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy. He lives in New York City.