Street art and decay are natural companions. No sooner does the art appear than it begins to decompose - via the elements of nature and "nurture" (human interaction). As a street art enthusiast and supporter, I am drawn to decay and ruin in my art. It is absorbing, interesting, dramatic. And perhpas even more curious, I am not alone. I am not that unusual.
(Photograph by Charlene Weisler - Coimbra Portugal - August 2011)
Morgan Meis writes an interesting essay on the subject of ruin as art for The Smart Set emag. Here is an intro to his fascinating and much longer essay:
(Photograph by Anselm Kiefer)
Everybody is talking about ruins these days. That could be a bad sign. Detroit, in particular, seems to have captured the fancy of the ruin enthusiast. Detroit has experienced a 25 percent reduction in population over the last 10 years or so. Whole areas of the city have been abandoned. You can see entire neighborhoods in ruin, skyscrapers in ruin, a vastly depopulated downtown area. Camilo José Vergara, a photographer specializing in urban decay, once suggested in the mid-1990s that large sections of downtown Detroit be turned into a "skyscraper ruins park." It would be a testimonial to a lost age, preserved in stone and metal and glass. Today, people sometimes travel to places like Detroit and other Rust Belt locations for the sole reason of gazing upon the ruins.
There have been the dissenters, too, the people who do not take or do not want to take aesthetic pleasure in industrial and urban ruins. The phrase "ruin porn" has made its way into popular parlance. Noreen Malone wrote a piece for The New Republic this year about our love of pictures of the abandoned streets and buildings of Detroit. She argued:
These indelible pictures present an un-nuanced and static vision of Detroit. They might serve to “raise awareness” of the Rust Belt’s blight, but raising awareness is only useful if it provokes a next step, a move toward trying to fix a problem. By presenting Detroit, and other hurting cities like it, as places beyond repair, they in fact quash any such instinct.
Malone is right about one thing: Vergara’s photographs do not suggest a next step. Photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (who took pictures of Detroit for a traveling exhibition entitled "The Ruins of Detroit") portray an inexorable process of decline. Marchand and Meffre's photograph of an interior of the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church, for instance, suggests something post-apocalyptic. Books are strewn across the top of a wobbly piano. Bits of mortar and dust cover what was, not so long ago, finely polished woodwork. It seems as if people left this place suddenly and amidst some catastrophe, never to return. These photos, and the plethora of amateur ruin documentation to be found on the Internet, are not created so much out of the need to raise consciousness as out of the need to stand before these ruins in awe. It isn't clear what you do next, after awe. The only thing that is clear from these photos is that the way forward is not clear. From the perspective of the ruin, the future always lacks clarity for the simple reason that ruins look mostly backward.
I can't disagree with Morgan's opinions that the artistic obsession with ruin can lead to "ruin porn" but I don't think that ruin used as art is necessarily a bad thing. Art needn't provide a "solution" to ruin and decay. Art just needs to "be". At least that is my opinion.
There are many photography books on Detroit including the stunning Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. He can be reached at [email protected].