Paul-Felix Montez is an artist who has designed sets for major films and exhibits for museum projects. He lived for ten years just five blocks north of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers. Inspired by a simple statement by a friend, he is now planning a large-scale exhibition called The Prayer Room for the ten year mark of the 9/11 attacks. The exhibition, even in its proposal phase, speaks to a multitude of conversations coming out of the fall of these iconic buildings – the most significant of which is that of ‘place’ for American immigrants.
Last weekend I got to speak with Paul on the phone about his inspiration, his ambitions, and his process in planning for The Prayer Room. Though the physical exhibition does not yet exist, just the proposal for the exhibition has provided a great starting point for many conversations. The images are renderings of the proposed exhibition.
Amanda: What you have here is a proposal for an exhibition that you hope to have for the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Tower attacks. What got you started in even thinking about doing this?
Paul-Felix: It actually started about six months after the 9/11 tragedies. I had a moslem friend and I was out in LA and he basically said, “but there had to be moslem’s there.” That was the question. It was a question in a statement. It was “moslem’s were there.” Question mark? He formed this question in a statement that really got me thinking that for every argument that’s now ragging in the United States, that this entire picture of 9/11 excludes that one simple fact. That moslems were operating and working in the World Trade Centre.
Somewhere along the line I stumbled along the obvious thing of having to pray five times a day, and I was like, where would that have taken place? Because there was no mosque in the World Trade Centre and for workers to leave the building and come all the way down to the bottom and then have to walk blocks to the nearest mosque, it struck me as very very difficult. So what could happen in this scenario?
That lead me to hunting and looking for little pieces. It’s sort of like an investigation of the World Trade Centre and the lives of moslems within that. It lead me to a few statements where people said “well we used to pray in the stairwell” or “there was a room.” One of the reasons I felt this was important to get out now is that I ran across an article in the New York Times that directly addressed that fact. I said to myself, yes, I’ve been working on that myself and contacted the writer, and he was very supportive. I knew that this was something that had to be brought to the fore — into the national argument that’s taking place.
Two very very specific things about this story are a common human experience in American society: one is prayer, and the other is place: Finding one’s place, finding a place, having a place in American society. It is a national phenomenon. Because America is a country completely built of immigrants all struggling to find place. The message of place is very very interesting.
Amanda: So in reference to that place, you’re proposing to do something of quite a grand scale – is it to scale of the actual prayer room? How big is it going to be?
Paul-Felix: Yes, It will be two very large pieces at least 80 per cent scale.
Amanda: Can you describe the pieces you’re doing that are representative of those places? You have the prayer room, and the prayer rugs, what are the other elements of it?
Paul-Felix: The two dominant elements of the exhibit are the staircase on the 163rd floor next to the Windows on the World restaurant, which was a common prayer space. There was also a room in the South Tower on the 17th floor. Both of these are duplicated in detail but then tilted off access. I didn’t want to do it in a way where when you look at these things you’re not able to take in the whole space, so that’s why the need to tilt them up so that you get a sense of the whole room, and you’re able to partially look into the room, through the room, at the room from a very definitive physical spot one takes it in in a way. What that does is it makes it a piece of architecture that is being presented to you as an object so that you can then reflect upon the use of the space and you are actually having a physical and conceptual interaction with that space.
A lot of the wall pieces are elements of the blueprints of the World Trade Centre. Some of them to full scale. There’s an art piece that is one of the trusses that were used to support the World Trade Centre and that were also accused as part of the controversy as to why this structure collapsed. So what I’m doing is presenting the entire truss as an artwork at 72 feet long carefully worked out in graphite powder.
On another wall are the vertical or top view blueprints of the 163rd floor and the 17th floor and the locations are marked in the blueprints where these rooms are located to make up a whole series of those drawings also done in graphite powder. So we’re actually seeing a bunch of physical blueprints of the space developing on the location and developing a concept of location again but as a flat drawing.
Then the third part of it are these prayer rugs, which in and of themselves are used in a series of small works.
Amanda: Have you ever done an exhibition like this before?
Paul-Felix: This exhibit is truly different. Doing a large scale sculpture is often a very self contained unit, and here the external references are to the World Trade Centre, major historic tragedy, cultural lines, religious lines, and those references all challenge the process of working on this particular project because it’s so easy to go in a direction where everything becomes so trite. This is really an extraordinary challenge because it’s tackling so many intangible things that need to be expressed in the work. Even the very angle of those rooms need a great deal of planning and articulation to find just the right position to where a great deal of impact can have. I’m finding it’s an extraordinary experience because of the challenge it presents. Part of those challenges are that I’m in obligation to be true to all the major themes that are in this project.
Amanda: You said that there are certain political challenges in getting this done itself. We were talking earlier [before the interview] that there is a lot of art that is political but you can ignore that it’s political for the sake of making it sellable, but this is an exhibition that, as soon as you look at it, you can tell there is a very clear political statement about people in our society overlooking the obvious to a certain extent.
Paul-Felix: Exactly. One thing in American society that I also feel is an element in this particular project is that the World Trade Centre itself represents a huge iconic level of ambition in American society. It’s called the World Trade Centre. When it was built it represented America’s ambition to be a world power, and that ability to dominate the world economy. It represented our ambitions to be every where in the globe.
Part of bringing those blueprints in is that we don’t really look at the monumentality of American architecture, especially an icon like the World Trade Centre, which expresses that national ambition. I felt it was very important not to just have the room but the full scale, the truss for example, is a full scale drawing, an element of the World Trade Centre and it’s sitting right there as if the building were in parts all around you. It forces you to begin to construct the building in your mind. It takes it a step further into the iconography. The sheer monumental scale of the World Trade Centre is staggering. To confront that is also part of this exhibit. It asks the question what is national architecture.
Amanda: Part of your proposal talks about doing a video project where you speak with people who used the prayer room. Can you talk about that a bit?
Paul-Felix: I’ve only done one so far, in New York. We sat down and we worked out a little plan for the interview, and I said, first I want you to just tell me about finding this space. Just being in the World Trade Centre and how you found it. And the second part was his impressions of the room he prayed in. What did it look like, what did it make him feel like. Very short simple statements about that room. And overtime what impressions did he have or did his impressions change of the room, just concentrating on the physical space. Which was very hard.
For the final part of the interview was to discuss what it was like to be a moslem American or moslem American immigrant prior to 9/11 and what it was like today. That was where you start to see a very telling picture of fear, and also just of someone who wants to get on with their life, and that very central theme comes out in all of these things, one of which is just ‘I want my place’ — without violence, without antagonism, without mistrust, and how can i earn that? How can anyone understand that? So those become central themes again even in the video project.
Amanda: It’s sad and beautiful to have those conversations
Paul-Felix: It’s raising questions for future work in terms of how does one find ones place in an event and tragedy of this scale
Amanda: To a further extent it speaks to a cyclical treatment of immigrants to North America, so at different times as different kinds of people come in they’re treated this way and then everyone gets over it and they become part of the group that then treats the next group that way. And they’re just people who want to live in a beautiful place with beautiful people and get on with their lives.
Paul-Felix: A very interesting experience I had was when this man was talking during the interview for the video is that I actually sat there and thought about the American Jewish community struggles. When I was a kid I had met a man (I grew up in Manhattan) who was Jewish, and he had been in Auschwitz, and he talked about that same thing. About acceptance and how getting beyond even ‘tolerance’ is incredibly important. You see it in the struggle with African Americans even at this point. It’s a question of getting beyond tolerance to an actual place within the society. It’s not a society that puts up with me, it’s a society that works with me. Just as I am without any changes. So there’s a struggle that’s constantly going on. We see it with Hispanics in America, we see it everywhere in the United States with so many different groups, and there’s this process of becoming part of the society, overcoming the demonization, the outsiders mistrust – we are here, we have value, we are all Americans, we believe in this country, we believe in the essential ideals of equality for all and religious freedom for all. America is the great escape for the hardships that many suffer.
I think what this particular artwork offers us is not just a discourse on the present but the very nature of American immigration. There are so many layers in every single part of this project. It just keeps hitting another layer, another layer. Whether it’s the question of what is prayer or what we say is prayer. What is architectural ambition, architecture in America, immigration and finding a presence in America, social identity. You know it just goes on and on and on. It’s also enters a very powerful national debate.
One of the things I truly enjoy about the project is that a prayer space is what an art exhibit is like. One walks into an exhibit and it’s quiet. It’s a meditative and reflective space. Contemporary art museums and galleries are meditative and reflective spaces very similar to prayer. So that’s another question is the very exhibit by its own nature is a commentary on modern art and the nature of which we place art within it. Are we placing art in a prayer space, a spiritual space, a contemplative space. Often museums and galleries are like that. The new church for the thinking society. Those are the issues that still have to be addressed in this work.
If you would like to help Paul-Felix make this exhibition a reality by assisting with funding for the construction of the prayer spaces, he can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.