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the remains of flight TWA800
Floating debris from TWA800
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Douglas Coupland
Worst-case scenario

things 10
summer 1999
On my living room wall I have a 4x8-foot backlit Plexiglas photo of the remains of TWA Flight 800 which crashed en route from New York’s JFK Airport to Paris early in the evening of July 17, 1996. Most people recognize this crash as the one which triggered a spate of conspiracy theories wherein the US military accidentally shot down a civilian jetliner-a theory long since invalidated. The truth is much more gruesome and much more mundane. 

A frayed electrical wire passing through the fuel tanks, at the point where the right wing attaches to the fuselage, sparked and caused a massive fireball. The 747’s front cabin area snapped off immediately and fell about four miles into Long Island Sound. The back part of the jet, in the sudden absence of weight from the front, shot upward in a ball of flame, thus creating the illusion of a fiery missile attack. The jet ultimately shot up fully vertically-at which point the wings snapped off and the whole works careened down into the ocean. Experts involved in the flight’s forensic reconstruction were quietly sickened when they could only face the truth that those passengers seated at the craft’s rear were fully conscious of the whole process - two or three minutes. 

The one celebrity to die in TWA 800’s crash was Jed Johnson, the only human being known to have had a meaningful long term romantic relationship with Andy Warhol. Johnson’s inclusion in a tragedy of such ...American proportions only loans it a more mythic dimension. Johnson was working at the time as an interior designer, he was on his way to France to check out fabrics. He was in first class. Experts who reconstructed the crash say that those in First Class, Business Class and the cockpit were killed instantly and were never conscious of the four-mile fall down to the ocean. Lucky them. 

When I say I have a 4x8-foot backlit Plexiglas photo of the remains of TWA flight 800, what I have is an image of what remains as could be collected, meticulously reconstructed within a Long Island Quonset hut, around a vast black-painted steel armature. The reconstruction was an attempt by the US government to determine whether, in fact, the crash was accidental or willed. It is a testament of human creativity, ingenuity and endurance that not only could a plane such as a 747 be constructed in the first place, but that tens of thousands of pieces of its shrapnel could be collected from the ocean’s bottom over an area of several hundreds of square miles, and then be reconstituted to recreate the whole. Shocking. Stunning. 

The plane, as mentioned, rests inside a fluorescently lit Quonset hut. The light which illuminates the piece in my living room is also fluorescent, and the optical overlap of the two is nothing short of eerie. The overall look of the piece is more like a Rauschenberg than any other identifiable artist-the crisp TWA logo and high-tech 747 form reified through a layer of muck and rips, with large gaps of missing information (not all plane parts were located). Other art that comes to mind is Italian and French affichiste works of the 40s and 50s. But any resemblance to other artistic styles, as opposed to genres, are, in the end, moot. The piece is a sui generis jaw dropper, and elicits reactions from viewing initiates of a caliber that might be reserved for alien spacecraft invasions. 

The image was taken from the Internet. The URL of its location was forwarded to me by a friend with a similar interest in civil aviation, and as a US government photo, it is fully in the public domain (a low-rez version can be found here). I telephoned a local printing house here in Vancouver and gave their sign-making division the URL. They downloaded it-a 4.3 gigabit file-and told me it had a neat 2-to-1 width-to-height ratio. I was also told that 4x8-feet is a standard sign-making size: I gave them the go-ahead to make up a full-size sign. Two days later my doorbell rang, and there it was. It took twenty minutes to hang, and three seconds to plug in. 

There’s a story I heard in art school, and it may well be apocryphal, but then again, it may well not be so. It’s this, that 70s minimalist Donald Judd once phoned in an entire show from a remote location, merely giving a carpenter dimensions and specs for surfacing for his signature box-like pieces. He considered it an endorsement of his work’s purity that they could be created in such a detached, modular manner. Twenty years later, the notion of phoned-in art seems simultaneously both liberating and nonsensical. Where is the individual gesture? If anyone can make it, is it something other than art? Are the results of phoned-in art merely the residue of performance art (the act of phoning in the show) or is it art-art? And so on. 

In a secular modern culture, in the absence of immediate, visceral warfare or of a local physical threat, images of car and plane crashes become superimbued with symbolic freight. They become images of ‘the battlefield’ -a common genre used by painters, sculptors and craftsmen for millennia. To reduce such a powerful image to such a thicket of words seems cruel and willfully detached, but at the same time, such a reduction can be helpful when trying to classify a vast array of works of violent themes-Goya, Bacon, Warhol, Hirst. Whatever. My downloaded, backlit billboard-sized image of TWA 800 is not so much a curiosity as it is a segment of a thematic continuum that reinflects itself every few decades. Its capacity to shock (and yes, it shocks very well) stems not merely from the intrinsic horror of a crash-nor from the seductive beauty of the image of itself, divorced from all historical context-but from the unsilenceable alarm bells within us all that remind us that the battlefield’s still there, it just looks different these days.

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things 10, summer 1999

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