Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
Ruins have been an appealing subject for artists and photographers for hundreds of years. Piranesi, the great granddaddy of the art form, completed several thousand etched plates of Roman and Greek ruins, and his images remain perhaps the most popular examples of the genre. A bound volume of Piranesi’s ‘Views of Rome’ or ‘Roman Antiquities’ was a prized addition to the hoard of treasures young English gentlemen took home when they returned from their Grand European Tour in the eighteenth century.
Detroit Disassembled at the Queens Museum of Art is Andrew Moore’s recent addition to the corpus of ruins art. This city is perhaps the most logical choice to document the wrenching consequences of the change over the last several decades in the American economy from manufacturing to services. From a peak population of 1.8 million in 1950, the city has atrophied to just over 700,000 now, with tens of thousands of abandoned buildings and more than one-third of land in the city now vacant. Moore’s large color photographs (29 are displayed) show houses, industrial structures, and government buildings that dramatically reflect the city’s ills.
Part of the appeal of ruins is attributable to purely formalistic considerations; typically rich in their depiction of texture, these images are marked by strong compositions, featuring built structures that are (or were) notable architecturally. But more important are their philosophical overtones and implications: decay as a feature of both the natural and human worlds, the essential fragility of civilization, and the ultimate futility and vanity of human activity.
The considerable distance between us and the worlds depicted in classical ruins tempers our reactions to these images. For example, the absence of specific knowledge about ancient Rome forces us to fall back on generalized feelings and explanations. When we look at images of classical ruins as they are reflected back to us in our imaginations, we have vague, possibly contradictory notions of depersonalized Arcadian paradises and the lost glory of vanished empires ideas that no longer have much relevance to us and no longer impact our lives.
Our mind’s eye sees Moore’s images differently than it does those of classical ruins. This is our civilization. We see changes that have transpired in our lifetimes with broader implications, ones that may affect us painfully in ways we cannot foretell. But these photos do not explain themselves, and the inevitable question is Why? Are we seeing the consequences of bad business decision-making, faulty leadership by local and or national governments, racist behavior of middle class whites who fled the city for the suburbs, trade policies that rendered the US unable to compete with low-wage economies? Or are they the consequences of myriad conjoined factors that no one can fully understand, much less control? In any event, Moore has directed our attention to this continuing tragedy with this series of stunning photographs, though he, of course, does not answer these questions.
A frequent problem with this genre of photography is the tendency for images to become repetitious: spalling plaster looks pretty much like spalling plaster. Fortunately, only a few of Mr. Moore’s photos qualify for “déjà-vu” awards: a photo of an office in police headquarters shows an upended detective’s desk amid piles of discarded files and other rubble. Mr. Moore mostly avoids such clichés through his heightened sensitivity to irony and his eye for strong composition, along with an appreciation for subject matter both unusual and visually appealing. His task is aided, of course, by an abundance of striking material from which to choose – remember those thousands of abandoned buildings? One of the more remarkable images is a photograph of a large wall clock with a paper face distorted by severe water damage, resulting in a Daliesque image suggesting that time has stopped in Detroit, which in a sense it has. Moore’s photos also document that in the long run nature wins: we see a green carpet in an abandoned auto industry office, only to realize on close inspection that green is not the color of the carpet, rather that of a living sodden mass re-colonizing the office floor. Or a grove of saplings has taken root not in soil, but rather in a pile of rotting textbooks in an abandoned book depository.
One especially interesting photo shows the interior of an abandoned high school chemistry lab. Things are in disarray, with drawers pulled out and lab equipment scattered everywhere, presumably by thieves, as almost everything of value in these unprotected buildings was long ago scavenged for whatever it could be sold for. But the striking finding is that most of the lab equipment is still there, a subtle yet damning comment on the value placed on science by so many in our culture. Want an Erlenmeyer flask cheap?
Not all the photos in this exhibition are downers. Moore includes a few in which the world is as it should be appropriate for a city that has seen an apparently successful turnaround by the auto industry. In short, this is a still-unfolding story leading us we know not where. We are indebted to Mr. Moore for directing our attention to this important and serious message about the state of American capitalism.