After Sept. 11, artist Aaron Fein began to make national flags out of white fabric; they became symbols not of nations but of community and refuge
“White Flags,” a new installation at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary that runs through October 14, was “born out of tragedy,” as the artist Aaron Fein puts it, in the days of grief and shock immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. Fein, born and raised in New York City, lives in Charlottesville, Va., and has worked as an architect, sculptor, and installation artist for the better part of the past 20 years. Like most Americans in the tense and fraught period after the attacks, he noticed everywhere bumper stickers of the American flag featuring the proudly defiant legend, “These colors don’t run!” But, he soon realized, over time the colors on the stickers did fade—as do colors on old flags of every land, as years pass. The ephemeral nature of flag symbols, and indeed of everything in our physical world, struck a deep chord in the wake of Sept. 11, leading Fein to conceive of a new, and more uniting, vision.
Fein began to make national flags out of white fabric, using sewing, embroidery, and appliqué to fashion in monochrome the design that would, in ordinary circumstances, have made a colorful banner. He began with the American flag but quickly realized, he says, “The U.S. flag alone seemed out of balance.” So, he decided to re-create all 193 flags of the United Nations in white-on-white. It’s taken him almost 10 years to complete the task in time for the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
The process proved painstaking. For the better half of the decade, Fein seemed plagued by fits and starts. The sewing, while soothing, began isolating him, and by 2006 Fein had to acknowledge a growing need to share the process with others and make community-building part of the flag-making. He began standing in public with eight flags, engaging people in discussion about the project. And he sought production assistance from a group of dedicated volunteers of all skill levels. These helpers—schoolchildren, congregants at his synagogue, Facebook fans of the project, other artists, and the public—ironed fabric, sewed stripes, and finished edges.
He completed the last flag this spring and took the installation to Vassar College, where he had received his bachelor’s in art in 1993, as part of a symposium he co-led with Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick (the two are married) on issues of art, politics, and peace. “Aaron has a bone-deep vision of a world in which remembrance and healing can coexist,” Lithwick says. “That’s the truest expression of Tikkun Olam I can imagine.”
“Flags are visceral representations of political ideas,” Fein says. Among the resonant symbols the project evokes is the traditional white flag of surrender. But in this case, any surrender intended would be something closer to giving in to the nature of change, as well as, more personally for Fein, letting go of social defenses and making himself vulnerable as he shared his flags with the public.
As a Jew, Fein perhaps inevitably felt some traditional resonances arise as he worked on “White Flags.” When setting up the installation at Vassar this spring, he suddenly realized he’d created a kind of a room among the hanging flags. “I began to see that the installation could welcome and provide refuge to visitors from all sides, like the Tent of Abraham.” He also fashioned the flags into the skin of his family’s sukkah. The physical and symbolic ephemerality of the flags seemed the perfect enclosure to reinforce the transitory symbolism of Sukkot. “Living with White Flags over the years,” he says, “these things in my life would come to me, like Abraham’s tent, which for me was a good way to describe a longing that I have about a world I’d like to help create.”
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