“The worst thing that can happen is that you bear a child, you raise the child, you nurture the child, you love the child, then it’s wiped out by hate. And the worst thing is to have that child forgotten. This was one way how that person would not be forgotten.” Suse Lowenstein
At Heathrow Airport on December 21, 1988, Alex Lowenstein, along with 34 other students from Syracuse University, boarded Pan Am Flight 103 for the trip home after spending a semester abroad in London. Shortly after takeoff, a bomb planted on the plane by two Libyan nationals exploded, killing all 243 passengers,16 crew members, and 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland, where large sections of the aircraft landed. In a heartbeat, life changed for so many families. Those looking forward to reunions with their loved ones, spending the holidays welcoming the students back, found themselves planning funerals instead.
Alex’s mother, Suse, dealt with her grief through her work as an artist. She made a sculpture of herself frozen in the position she fell into when she heard the news that her son had died. After sharing her project on the Pan Am Family Victims’ Newsletter, she invited other mothers to participate. Seventy-five women responded and over the next 15 years, Suse worked on what would become “Dark Elegy,” capturing in her sculptures the grief and agony experienced by mothers of the sons and daughters who had died.
“If I hadn’t had `Dark Elegy,’ I wouldn’t want to get up I wouldn’t want to get out of bed, I would drink myself to death,” Lowenstein says in Jill Campbell’s documentary, Seat 20D, Alex Lowenstein’s seat on that flight. The film is a tribute, not only to those who perished in the crash, but to Suse’s efforts, as well as those of other parents and Syracuse University, who have worked so hard to keep the memory of those students alive and relevant. “Dark Elegy” has been exhibited on the campus of Syracuse University and several other places in the northeast. Currently, the work rests on the Lowenstein property on Montauk, Long Island, where it continues to attract a steady stream of visitors.
I graduated from Syracuse University. In 1995, along with some of my sorority sisters, we visited the campus for a reunion. “Dark Elegy” was at that point still a work in progress, but many of the statues were on display on a grassy expanse near the university’s Hall of Languages. Our group spent sobering moments studying the figures. Several of us with young children had a visceral reaction to the exhibit, understanding the unbearable pain a mother would feel knowing that she had lost a child to such a senseless act of violence.
There are plenty of close up shots of the statues in the film showing not only each woman’s facial expression and body language, but highlighting Suse’s incredible talents. The women are portrayed without clothes, something that Suse felt was necessary, stripping them of all external coverings to put what they were feeling on full display. For those interested in how the figures were constructed, Suse goes into detailed explanations showing, once again, that this project was surely an act of love requiring not only her time, but also her emotional energy.
Several other parents are interviewed about their children, the impact of the tragedy on their families, and how Suse’s artwork has helped them to heal. Also interviewed is Alex Lowenstein’s brother, Lucas, who, painfully reveals that he and Alex did not always get along. Their last words to each other expressed hate, not love, something he’s still trying to process.
Syracuse University awards 35 Remembrance Scholars each year, given in the names of the students who died. Each recipient has the opportunity to learn more about the individual student highlighted in their award. In the film, Tori Cedar is named the recipient of Alex Lowenstein’s scholarship. “Incredible to walk this campus and know that they walked the same steps and probably had similar places where we all hung our as students,” Tori says. “Yes, 29 years have gone by but student life hasn’t changed a lot.” Later in the film, she visits Montauk and views the sculptures with Suse.
Suse’s current challenge is finding a permanent home for “Dark Elegy.” Although it has been exhibited at Syracuse, the university has declined to give the work a permanent home. “If Syracuse won’t take it, who will?” Suse asks. Because the work is massive, finding a place for Suse’s artwork will be difficult.
Right now, “Dark Elegy” continues to reside at Suse’s home in Montauk. And, perhaps. 20D will bring Suse’s incredible project to the attention of a museum, an institution, or just the right person who will be interested in memorializing those who perished in such a tragic event.
Seat 20D is available to stream on Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy.
Photos courtesy of First Run Features.