Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The Weight of a Quilt

Two months ago, on September 12, I went to the Seattle Center to view the WTC / Pentagon / Pennsylvania Memorial Quilt, and I volunteered some time while I was there.  I came back with somewhat conflicted feelings, rather underwhelmed by the display.

Part of it is that I don’t know anyone who was killed (or injured; how many survived but were hurt?) in the September 11 attacks.  The event remains for me very much something which occurred in the distance, not unlike the War in Iraq.  The only two panels which had any real impact were one which was just for children who were killed, and one which include Father Mychal Judge and Mark Bingham (and by extension, was probably intended for all gay and lesbian victims).  These last were the closest to being people I know; they were at least people whose names I knew.  There were also a few squares which had some truly innovative work on them, and some panels with extras, such as the lyrics to America the Beautiful stitched into the panel, but even those were interesting to me but not moving.

The largest part of my ambivalence, though, is that quilt memorials have been done before, and done both better and bigger.  Compared to the Names Project’s AIDS Quilt, this is but a shadow of the earlier one.
  • The WTC Quilt took up the space of a large ballroom (albeit hung vertically, and back to back, which reduced the space required by a factor of probably 6 or 8), while the AIDS quilt covered the entire Mall in Washington DC and was laid on the ground.
  • The WTC Quilt uses 25 quilt squares per panel, while the AIDS Quilt uses only 8.  Is that 3 times more impact per panel?  Or only 1/3 as much, since the pieces are smaller?
  • The WTC Quilt largely uses traditional quilting methods and patterns, and mostly limited the colors to a patriotic red, white/cream, and blue; only a few of the quilts included other fabrics or fabric-printed photos.  The AIDS Quilt is a cacophony of colors, materials, and imagery.  As a result, pieces of the AIDS Quilt stand out very strongly, while the WTC Quilt fades into a sea of sameness.  Even standing in front of the right panel, finding a square for a particular person is difficult, and once found, it’s a let down because there’s nothing personal about it: just a quilted square with a name scribbled on it.  (This strengthens the randomness of the attacks, perhaps, but doesn’t really give you a reason to look at more than a fragment of the whole display.)
  • Panels in the AIDS Quilt were usually made by lovers, friends, or family of the deceased.  You can feel the love and the pain that went into every panel, producing a memorial to each person.  With the WTC Quilt, most of the panels were done by people with no direct connection to the attacks.  The panels were largely done blindly, not attached to a name (even to a specific name the quilter knew nothing about).  The WTC Quilt comes off somewhat generic and cold as a result.
  • Not that I wish that more famous people had died in the September 11 attacks, but much of the reason to see the AIDS Quilt, if not to see someone you know, is to see someone you know of.  Celebrity is a touchstone, and it’s a great way to educate.  The reason to see the WTC Quilt is to see the quilt; the reason to see the AIDS Quilt is to see someone’s quilt.
In no way do I want to say that the WTC Quilt is bad or poorly thought out.  It is what it is, and it certainly has a power to it.  (And both memorials utilize an American artform, as well.)  But just as my ability to publicly grieve at yet another death faded over the 1990s as friends and acquaintances succumbed to AIDS (and as half my own family died of mostly age-related causes), so too has my ability to be awestruck by the immensity of such a memorial gone away.  I’ve seen displays of the AIDS Quilt — and outright cried the first time, and halfway wish I had been able to see a full display in DC (but halfway don’t) — and I donated money to the NAMES Project for years.  The WTC Quilt cannot compare, in any direction.

I stopped donating to the NAMES Project in the late 1990s when I recognized that AIDS was not, should not be the centerpiece of the gay community.  A friend and dance partner of mine — Parm Nelson — died in the mid/late 90s, not of AIDS but of melanoma… of cancer.  (And I got to be the one to call everyone in our dance troupe to tell them the news.)  A major tragedy for those who knew and loved him, but is there a quilt panel for Parm?  Nope.  No such memorial for gays who merely died of common ailments, almost as though if it wasn’t AIDS, it wasn’t worth dealing with.  (My choice to no longer donate to the NAMES Project was purely from my own growth, not from any failing of that organization.)  Many organizations in our community have had to and are still having to deal with the fact that, as AIDS becomes less of a deadly immediacy, their structures being built solely on that disease become unstable, unfunded, and less vital to the community.

Updated on April 17, 2006
Comment by Sid M. (Bellingham, WA)

Hi… I recently read your web-log <not blog> and see that your were a friend of Parm Nelson.

I was a pledge  brother of Parm’s at Sigma Nu — University of Idaho and sadly had reconnected with him after many years just before he died.  We were both deeply in the closet then, but in retrospect I think we both “knew”.

I was curious what ever happened to his partner?  I talked him several times but was never able to convey my condolences.

Anyhow, quilt, or no quilt, Parm remains in our memories.

Updated on June 2, 2011
By being presented vertically, the WTC Quilt encouraged people to encounter it in the same way as art in a museum — at face level and with nothing beyond/behind it but a flat surface.  The AIDS Quilt was typically presented horizontally, at foot level.  To encounter the panels, you had to look down and sometimes even kneel.  And you had an awareness of people on the other side of the panel, in the next row, and or the entire scope of the display at hand, be it in a hall or on The Mall.  Brilliance on the part of the AIDS Quilt display designers, exponentially increasing the impact of the display.

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