And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; and thereby hangs a tale.
— As You Like It
One summer, my Polish aunt flew out to visit me in Chicago from Warsaw. Restless by nature and inspired by the breadth of the American plains, she decided to go on a road trip to the great industrial cities of the Middle West. She came back amazed. Detroit made the biggest impression on her. “You wouldn’t believe what a state it’s in.” She proceeded to show me a roll of photographs she had shot there: empty factories, stained smokestacks, gutted mansions, whole streets on which every house was either boarded up or collapsing. I think the vacant lots impressed her the most, the sense they gave of a city draining itself of life, undergoing a kind of devolution, reverting step by step into squares of rubble and green fields.
“How could they just leave it like that—abandon a whole city?”
I didn’t know what to tell her. I didn’t want to tell my aunt that I had seen it all, and more, before, in magazine spreads, on Instagram, in Flickr portfolios, as a backdrop to movies and in glossy photo books like Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled and The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. And I certainly didn’t want to tell her that the photos she was taking were now seen as something morally and politically dubious, examples of what has come to be known as “ruin porn.”
Ruin porn treats real, living spaces of social interaction as stage sets for melancholy reflection. In doing so, it aestheticizes poverty and obscures social violence, doing nothing to illuminate the historical processes, such as the decline of industry, withdrawal of state funding and institutional racism on the part of city planners and state agencies, that went into creating these modern “ruins” in the first place.
All of this seems fair. And yet there’s something deeply compelling about ruins all the same. Images of ruin and decay show up everywhere. Usually they’re in the background, there to provide atmosphere or mood. Abandoned schoolhouses, rotting mansions and landscapes of decay help give True Detective its mood of bayou noir. The ruins of Atlanta give The Walking Dead a taste of the post-apocalyptic sublime. Sometimes ruins themselves take center stage, as in the photographs of Robert Polidori of New Orleans after Katrina or Richard Misrach’s pictures of diseased herds left to bloat in the deserts of Nevada.
In literature, active ruins—buildings in the process of falling apart—usually function by way of metonymy for some larger social process. Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher falls along with the Ushers. In the short stories of the great Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, decay registers the stasis of a provincial world where modernity still feels like a mirage, a “paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year’s moldering newspapers.” The at first gradual, and then very abrupt destruction of the barely habitable Majestic Hotel at the heart of J. G. Farrell’s novel Troubles mimics the collapse of English rule in Ireland.
But metonymy and metaphor don’t exhaust the appeal of ruins. Decaying places have a charm in and of themselves, whether experienced in person or in art. I like Walker Evans’s photographs of trash, Boris Mikhailov’s ugly Ukrainian bazaars and Cindy Sherman when she’s being gross. But I’m not sure why. I do know that I love the smell of rotting grass and the sight of fence posts covered in lichen or roof shingles covered in moss, and that the open doorway to a half-collapsed house is an invitation I can’t resist.
Most of us have ruins we think of as our own. They could be a decaying cabin or an abandoned bus rotting in the woods. Mine is an abandoned brick factory in Clearfield County, next to some train tracks at the bottom of a narrow by the Juniata River. I used to visit it with my friends in the winter. We’d climb in through a broken window when there was snow outside. The factory was three stories high. We would walk on a catwalk near the ceiling above the old brick kilns. Weeds grew inside the building. Some of them were practically trees. They reached almost as high as the kilns.
So what is it about ruins? I don’t think the current fascination with sites of decay stems from a simple gloating over economic failure or a more abstract “mourning of the loss of the aesthetic itself,” as Brian Dillon argues. I think it has something to do with time, and our yearning for an experience of it that goes beyond regular human experience. The time of decay lives outside of culture and history. It ignores human existence, but it doesn’t overawe it. It’s sublime, but in a minor key that lets in mortality and the quotidian. For some reason, those two things—death and trash—are precisely what we want from art as we move into a spotless, seamless digital future.
One of the functions of art is to give back what technology takes away. And what technology takes away most often now is a sense of age. Pieces of technology more and more feel as if they come from nowhere. They vanish into obsolescence in a matter of years. Being temporary, they take on the status of utterance. They’re like speech instead of writing; they hang in the air for an instant, and then they’re gone. The same is true for much of the built environment. And the same is true for much of contemporary art.
But that’s all terribly abstract. Better to start with an object.