Exhibit: “They Were Older Than Me”

From the April 12, 2012 edition

“An awesome job in an awesome place in an awesome city.”

Tara Polansky, then 22, was in the subway beneath the World Trade Center when the first plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001. She was commuting to her job in New Jersey. People were running out but no one was saying why.

She saw the hole in the side of the tower. Police hadn’t arrived. People were just looking up. Papers were doing a pretty, slow dance downward.

After she traveled two miles north, the towers fell.

“She was going through a lot of transition and just trying to find balance.”

This month Polansky, a local ceramic artist, has an exhibition at Gallery 831 that calls upon her survival that day. “They Were Older Than Me” features small handmade bricks — simultaneously conjuring thoughts of the towers and gravestones — that Polansky decaled with pictures of the eyes of 114 women who died in the attacks. The women were older than Polansky was in 2001, but younger than she is now.

In between the bricks hang 8-foot-long columns of newsprint that have one line from each woman’s New York Times obituary. All proper nouns are removed for the exhibit.

“Mr. _____, a firefighter, would have dinner waiting for her.”

“I felt like I could identify with the women, but these obituaries are very gendered. I almost got mad as I was reading them,” Polansky said. “I felt like, taken together, they end up kind of being dehumanizing … They just said the same thing over and over again. None of them said anything negative. It reflects back our ideals as a country rather than telling us about who they were.”

“But she wanted more.”

“‘Never forget’ became this cry for war. How can these families or survivors possibly forget?” Polansky said. “That tension between the political, national event and the personal trauma and loss is a very real tension.”

Polansky focused on the eyes because the part of the train station she was in on Sept. 11 had a tile mosaic that featured different eye illustrations. But using blurry prints of the eyes was also a way to help the public reflect. Focusing on one body part made the women seem mysterious; therefore, viewers could reflect on their humanity and not their martyrdom.

“On Sept. 11, they were waiting to sign the contract on a house on Cranberry Lane in Plainview on Long Island.”

We all make plans, have dreams, need to feed our families.

“Making this piece was really hard,” Polansky said. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know a lot of these women.”