Montage of Pure Grief Is Rejected As Memorial to Terrorism Victims

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The statues grimace, scream, tear at their hair and skin. Several have collapsed in agony. Others cry and rage at the heavens.

There are 76 of them -- oversize figures of women, most modeled from real life and depicting the moment they learned that their loved ones had been killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

All are nudes. Or as their creator prefers to put it, they are "stripped" or "unclothed" in the equality of anguish.

Yesterday New York sculptor Suse Lowenstein, herself one of the models, went before the National Capital Memorials Advisory Commission to argue that her wrenching sculpture, "Dark Elegy," should become a national memorial to victims of terrorism, located in Washington.

During an emotional hearing attended by weeping relatives of those who perished in the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, Lowenstein and her supporters contended that the women of "Dark Elegy" were as heroic as figures in existing memorials and could one day become national icons.

But the seven members of the commission, which advises the federal government on commemorative works in and around Washington, unanimously rejected the proposal.

They said they feared that the nude statues might offend some sensibilities, might be liable to coarse vandalism and might be too specific to Lockerbie to serve as a memorial to victims of all terrorism attacks.

Afterward, Lowenstein said she was not surprised, but she dismissed the commission's concerns about the sculpture, which was completed three years ago. "These figures are not explicit," she said, and they would not invite vandals. "It's ludicrous."

Carole G. Johnson of Greensburg, Pa., who lost her daughter Beth Ann, 21, on the flight, attributed the decision on the commission's desire to please everyone. "There's no way you're going to get general agreement among everyone," she said.

Johnson, who sobbed during parts of the hearing and wore a pendant containing her daughter's picture, was one of the scores of models Lowenstein asked to reenact the instant they learned their loved one's fate.

"My figure is one of me throwing the phone," Johnson said.

The members of the commission, which represents the National Park Service, the District, the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission and other agencies, were sympathetic and moved by the testimony.

"We can't know your grief," said Thomas Luebke, the representative of the arts commission. "What we say here today in no way demeans your experience."

Several commissioners thought a national memorial to the ongoing plague of terrorism ought to be more abstract and timeless. "How far do you carry personal anguish?" asked Michael Turnbull, the representative of the Architect of the Capitol.

Lowenstein, 64, said in a telephone interview before the meeting that she began the sculpture the year after her son, Alexander, 21, was killed aboard Flight 103, which was blown up Dec. 21, 1988, killing 270 people. She has a younger son, Lucas.

"I started portraying myself, basically, as a mother whose child was murdered," she said, "and what the emotions are that accompany such an event."

During subsequent support group meetings with people who lost relatives on the flight, and via their newsletter, she met other women who agreed to pose for her.

She said the figures in the sculpture are not wearing clothes because each such victim of terrorism is reduced to the same level, regardless of skin color or economic status. "People are truly stripped to the core," she said.

She began the work in Mendham, N.J., where she and her husband, Peter, were then living. It now resides in a sculpture garden at the couple's Long Island home in Montauk, N.Y., where the public is invited to view it.

The figures, each weighing more than 200 pounds, have skeletons of welded steel and chicken wire, and are covered with a painted synthetic substance that resembles plaster bandages. She wants a bronze version to be cast and placed somewhere in Washington.

"It's our national capital," she said. "And although we have independent memorials to independent tragedies of terrorism, we really do not have one that encompasses all victims of terrorism."

Last October, Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), who is Lowenstein's congressman, introduced a bill calling for "Dark Elegy" to become a memorial in or around the District. The bill has been referred to a subcommittee.

The project would be funded with money Lowenstein said her family received from the Libyan government as compensation for the Lockerbie attack. She declined to say how much that was, but she said just the bronze casting would be "a multimillion-dollar undertaking."

In 2003, Libya pledged to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to relatives of Lockerbie victims in exchange for a formal end to an 11-year United Nations embargo.

"It's an incredible way of spending that money, that we are really not comfortable having to begin with," Lowenstein said.

She said she knows what she is attempting will be difficult. "But we cannot not try," she said.

She pointed out that although her project was underway for more than a decade, it was dedicated in 1991. The date: Sept. 11.

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