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.
Charles Ray’s sculpture Hinoki occupies a full room in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. It looks, on first approach, like a very large, beautifully gnarled, perfectly hollow log. Closer inspection reveals that the sculpture is something else entirely. For one thing, its color is all wrong. It’s made out of the kind of wood you’d use to whittle a boat for a child: light, blond and fresh, roughly the shade of sawdust. The surface is off too. It’s covered in tiny chisel marks, cunningly arranged to mimic the natural irregularities of a long-decaying fallen tree—the whorled roots, burls, bumps, cracked bark and even termite trails that mark it as a product of long growth and long decay. Indeed, Hinoki is a replica, an image of a log created over four years of painstaking labor by a team of Japanese craftsmen. They fashioned it out of a type of cypress called hinoki, traditionally used for carvings of the Buddha and other religious figures.
The story Charles Ray tells about Hinoki is that he found the original redwood log when he was driving up the central coast of California one winter. He saw it from the road, embedded in the middle of a small meadow where he guessed it had been resting for at least twenty years. Struck by its beauty and the integrity of its form, Ray knew right away that he wanted to use the log as the basis for a sculpture, but he wasn’t sure how.
For several years, Ray kept coming back to look at the log in its field. At first, he toyed with the idea of recreating it as an inflatable sculpture, to capture the idea of living breath—or pneuma—that looking into its central hollow suggested to him. When it became clear this wouldn’t work, he tried to buy it, but the owners wouldn’t sell. Finally, he returned to the field with a chainsaw, carved the log into pieces and took them back to his studio in LA on the back of a flatbed truck.
Ray then took molds of all the pieces of the log, cast them in fiberglass, fitted them back together, then cut them apart again before shipping the whole thing to Osaka, where a group of master woodworkers began the task of recreating the log piece by piece. The woodworkers were specialists in restoring old sculptures from Buddhist temples. Once a figure had decayed so much that it could no longer be restored, they were called in to create a copy, giving the original new life. The leader of woodcarvers, Yuboku Mukoyoshi, told Ray that the same process of decay would take place in Hinoki. For four hundred years the wood would remain stable. Then it would go into a period of crisis, two hundred years of gradual cracking and splitting. This would be followed by a period of four hundred years of slow decline, after which it too would cease to exist.
Armed with a preset expiration date, Hinoki floats on the slipstream of time like a slow-motion Viking funeral. It cannot count on the kindness of strangers for very long. No one will save it in its current form. And if the museum ever falls into ruin, it will fall apart too, unless new life springs from its bones.
LIBRARY OF DUST
David Maisel is a photographer. He specializes in photographing ruined landscapes from the air: clear-cut forests, lava flows, open-pit mines, salt flats and tailing dumps. These are places that have been devastated by any number of disasters—chemical pollution, drought, industrial exploitation, even volcanic eruption. But from the remove of a few thousand vertical feet, they look beautiful.
They don’t have the apocalyptic feel of Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos, his searing pictures of the American West, full of oil flares and dead livestock, or his Petroleum America series, in which oil and gas pipelines spread across the Louisiana landscape like an infestation. Unlike Edward Burtynsky’s monumental photographs of quarries, mines and scrapyards, Maisel’s photographs don’t read like a direct indictment of human activity. His perspective is too high and remote for that. His salt flats, turning pink and green from brine shrimp and algae blooms, look like sumptuous lapidary pavements, the kind of thing you might find in the details of a Byzantine mosaic. His open-pit mines and tailing dumps have the gentle, luminous gradations of shade worthy of a painting by a Rothko or a Morandi. Seen from high enough above, his landscapes become all about found loveliness and not the circumstances of their ruination. Their aesthetic quality doesn’t absolve us of moral responsibility, though. In his work, blight, however beautiful, remains our doing.
In 2005 Maisel began investigating a different kind of landscape. That year, he heard that the Oregon State Hospital—the same one featured in Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—was acting as a custodian for the cremated remains of thousands of former inmates. Those whose ashes had gone unclaimed had been stored in individual copper canisters. It was the detail about copper that first seized Maisel’s attention. Over the decades, the canisters had undergone a dramatic process of corrosion. The copper cylinders reacted with water and the ashes inside to produce startling patterns of chemical blooms in an acid rainbow of colors: azure, malachite, teal, ochre and mauve. A member of one of the prison work gangs assigned to help clean the hospital nicknamed the room they were kept in the “library of dust.”
Maisel shoots each can individually, against a black backdrop, as if it were a votive shrine. In the photographs, two vastly different scales of time seem to merge. The time of the body, measured in decades of life and years of decay, and geological time, spanning eons, become one, as the bodies transform into mineral efflorescence in what Maisel calls an “alchemical equation.”
The details of corrosion give each canister its individuality. Through a state mandate, the hospital has begun seeking out the families of the deceased inmates in order to return the remains of their relatives. One such family, upon receiving the ashes of their long-dead relative Ada, committed to the hospital because she was an “inconvenience,” was disappointed to discover that her canister had been buffed and polished before being returned. Stripped of its ornamental decay, the canister looked like a giant bullet, or a can of food, and it seemed to them that Ada had lost her identity yet again.
This is what happens when a tree dies. First its living tissue dries. Then it falls. If it is a redwood, whose wood is hard and brittle, it might shatter. There, on the forest floor, a new sort of life begins for the tree. In life, most of its tissue was already dead. Now it becomes home to a host of organisms. First to arrive are the fungi, spreading their threads under the crumbling bark. Then come the wood-boring insects, drilling their tunnels and galleries into the hardwood, where they eat and raise their young. After them comes the deluge: spiders, false scorpions and ichneumon wasps, longhorn beetles, robber flies, millipedes and mites, all capitalizing on the avenues and inroads made for them by the wood-borers. And so, as it decays, the tree becomes a sort of city. At least for a time, until moisture invades the interior and the decay specialists, the saprotrophs, come in and begin turning the wood into soil. At which point the tree disappears completely.
In an influential essay, the German sociologist Georg Simmel argued that ruins were attractive because they embodied the resolution of contradictory forces. What human will tried to raise up, nature tried to bring low. Somewhere in the middle, between the brand-new city and the field of rubble, a beautiful synthesis was achieved. Ideally, Simmel thought, a ruin should blend into its surroundings, as if a product of both design and accident. Like a faded tapestry or a bronze statue covered in verdigris, the end result should acquire a mysterious harmony. Ruins are only beautiful when their destruction does not come senselessly from the outside but rather as “a realization of a tendency inherent in the deepest layer of existence of the destroyed.”1 It’s a very Hegelian notion, elegant and optimistic in its way, redolent with the atmosphere before the First World War. But I’m struck with how much this view of ruins depends on the presence of a human observer.
What would termites, those unparalleled experts in ruination and decay, make of Simmel’s notion? Termites were the first creatures on earth to practice agriculture and live in cities. They even built the first skyscrapers and mastered the art of ventilation fifty million years before the rotary fan. But without language—without symbols—they have no way to express the resolution of antitheses in their labor. Termites are also unique for having an organism in their gut that allows them to digest cellulose. This makes them masters of decay. I wonder what a house looks like to them. Or a city?
To connoisseurs of decay, Chernobyl has become a site of pilgrimage. The exclusion zone around Reactor 4 has been abandoned now for nearly thirty years. There’s no better place in the world to see what happens to the material substance of human life when humans leave it behind. In Pripyat, a city wholly within the zone, trees grow in the middle of streets and vegetation invades amusement parks. Rotting gas masks fill the classrooms of abandoned schoolhouses. In a hospital, the paint peels off in great sheets. Newspapers from 1986 litter the floor.
Visitors to Pripyat invariably say that it feels as if time has stopped there. Now the site has a second life as a backdrop to videogames such as Call of Duty and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. But of course time didn’t stop; human life did. Meanwhile, the forest kept growing. Mutated birdlife kept breeding. Mushrooms continued to draw nutrients from the soil—and with them radioactive elements, the same elements whose decay was once used as a timing device for the most accurate clocks in the world.
In some ways, though, time really does move differently in the exclusion zone. Pripyat is a city returning to the trees. Chernobyl is a place governed by half-lives of radioactive isotopes. But it’s in the forest where the strange effects of the reactor meltdown register most deeply. In the aftermath of the 1986 disaster, the trees immediately downwind from the Chernobyl plant all died, and in death turned an eerie shade of ginger red. The Red Forest, as it is now known, has since become a symbol of humanity’s capacity to poison not just the air or water, but an entire landscape—to infect the very earth with what Emil Cioran might have called our accursed humanness.
Recently, researchers returned to the Red Forest to see how it was recovering after twenty years. They were shocked to discover that natural processes of decay had stopped completely. Although dead, the red trees were not decaying. Neither was the forest litter. The microorganisms—bacteria, fungi and insects— that together recycle a forest’s nutrients and rid it of debris had simply vanished. Timothy Mousseau, the biologist who led the study, described his amazement at walking through a forest in which the leaves had piled into layers many feet thick.
In the poisoned forest, even the time of nature has stopped.
Whereas Maisel photographs bodies as they transform into an elemental mass, a chemical salt with clear kinship to the substance of photographic film, Rachelle Reichert makes art of, and about, salt itself. Her works have the look of something ancient. Even new, they feel as if they’ve been exposed to the elements for years. This feeling of age, of active, ongoing decay, makes them feel as if they are alive.
Rachelle started off as a figurative artist, trained in oil painting. She had to learn anatomy from the inside—how muscles connect, how they affect the look of the eye. Her training made her aware of the body. It also made her interested in medicine: first in anatomy, then neurology and finally biochemistry. As her practice evolved, she kept coming back to salt. Salt is necessary for muscles and synaptic processes. Salt preserves; it also destroys. She began by making skins out of salt crystals, mixing glue with water, adding salt and then letting the mixture dry out and harden. She learned to savor the cubic shape of the salt crystals. She learned about corrosion.
Many of Rachelle’s pieces involve immersing a piece of steel in a chemical solution and then letting it dry. On a hot day, the crystals come out bigger. The steel in them is usually scrap metal. The salt comes from the marshes in the South Bay. She has no idea when they will fall apart. She tells me that they mimic a lifespan: “It’s going to fall apart and then never exist again. The rust pieces are eventually going to be eaten through and become dust.”
To her, decay is a form of transformation. In talking about her work, she quotes a line from Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration, in which a doctor describes the way healing can mimic deterioration: “Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.”
Recently Rachelle visited Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. An iconic piece of land art from the 1970s, the jetty has undergone its own series of transformations in the decades since it was built. Over time, the Great Salt Lake has receded away from it. When Rachelle visited, in winter, it was at least five miles away. The lake has left its mark, though, in the form of salt crystals growing over the jetty stones. The crystals are pink, and they nearly obscure the original form of Smithson’s sculpture.
The Spiral Jetty is decaying. Salt is eating its bones. It’s fast becoming a ruin. In 1967, when Smithson drove to New Jersey on assignment for Artforum, he saw ruins everywhere. In his essay “The Monuments of Passaic,” he describes a landscape of pumping derricks, drainage pipes and unfinished construction sites. To him, suburban New Jersey wasn’t a place in the process of being built, but a ruin in reverse, where the “buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”
Outside Rutherford, on the edge of the Meadowlands, he found a “Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass.”
The San Francisco Bay’s only ghost town is located on an island in its southernmost part. The island—Station Island—is separated from the mainland on one side by Coyote Creek, and on the other by the rather prosaically named Mud Slough. To get there you have to walk across a boardwalk laid down over the New Chicago Marsh (a late-nineteenth-century developer hoped that the site would turn into a “New Chicago”; it didn’t) and then proceed along a narrow berm for two miles until you reach a rickety bridge over a ditch to the train tracks. Then you scramble across a railway bridge, hoping to make it across without being surprised by a fast-moving passenger train.
Drawbridge was once a bustling place. Its first resident was a lone bridge tender who settled there in the 1870s, when Drawbridge became a stop on the Alameda-Santa Cruz railroad, built as a challenge to the Stanford monopoly. Gradually, the village expanded. It became a popular getaway for city dwellers and a haven for hunters drawn by the plentiful marsh game. In its heyday, a thousand people a day dropped in for gambling, shooting and other pleasures. Drawbridge filled gambling houses, bordellos and saloons, built on stilts to withstand the daily tides. Their patrons appreciated its privacy and proximity to the growing towns of Fremont and San Jose.
In time, growth would spell Drawbridge’s doom. The marshes became a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. Landfill and reclamation projects nibbled at the bay’s edges. Worst of all was the salt industry. Driven by demand from silver mining, much of the South Bay was dammed up and turned into evaporation ponds. The ponds stank, and the wildlife disappeared. Drawbridge’s last resident left in 1979, driven off by vandalism and the curiosity of visitors who had heard that there was a ghost town in the heart of the bay.
For a ghost town, Drawbridge is fairly popular. It currently boasts nineteen reviews on Yelp (four stars, “definitely cool”). The people are gone, but the salt ponds are still there. They’re rancid-smelling up close but beautiful from the air. As water in the ponds evaporates and increases in salinity, it becomes home to different salt-loving species—algae and brine shrimp—that turn it brilliant shades of turquoise, pink and orange.
What’s in Drawbridge now? Silence, mostly. Aside from the occasional train, it’s one of the quietest places I’ve been to around the bay, and certainly the one with the biggest sky. To the north, you can see the Tesla Factory in Fremont. To the south, the airfield at the NASA Ames research center. North of it, somewhere, are the campuses of Google and Facebook.
The salt ponds around Drawbridge have been purchased by a wildlife refuge and dismantled. Fresh water is now pouring into the old pools, slowly turning them back into wetlands. The water is full of herons, white pelicans, canvasbacks, buffleheads, godwits and phalaropes. Pickleweed grows in a dense mat on the land, covered here and there by orange strings of dodder.
Meanwhile, the houses are sinking into the bay. Off their stilts, they keep burying themselves deeper and deeper in the mud. Many have had their roofs cave in. All are covered in a thick layer of mildew-like mold. Inside one house, the walls are covered in graffiti. The floor is full of puddles. On the outside, someone has painted the words “We were dreaming. Then we woke up.”
POLAND — WARSAW, BELZEC
Decay gives us time. It gives us time outside of human perception or scale. The linear time of the body. The cyclical time of the city. The time of the forest, obeying rhythms of its own. But ruins also do something else: they bear witness. And because of that, ending the essay in Drawbridge, amid the sanderlings and white pelicans on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, seems altogether too optimistic.
My thoughts turn back to my aunt and her visit to Chicago. I continue to be struck by her amazement at the ruins of Detroit, especially since Poland has ruins of its own. The Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk wrote that the material symbols of the fall of communism are “crumbling cement, rusting metal and weeds growing out of crevices in shattered concrete.” Marks of this communist past are everywhere, but there’s a deeper layer which they obscure.
A few blocks away from the Palace of Culture, the giant Stalinist skyscraper that marks the city center, there is a short, unassuming street called Prozna. The word means “empty,” a strange name for a street. And a completely inappropriate one, given that Ulica Prozna is home to a handful of the last remaining buildings to be part of the Warsaw Ghetto during the war. There are four of them, five-story tenements from the turn of the nineteenth century. The tenements’ aging facades, made out of decaying, almost-rotten brick, testify to their long life. After years of neglect, the tenements have gone heavily to seed. Few people live in them. Their entranceways and staircases usually smell like a mixture of urine and old dust. When I lived in Warsaw, I’d visit them from time to time. Nowhere else in the city is as redolent of the past.
My mother’s aunt Rose died near here, shot in prison after being caught crossing out of the ghetto illegally on a tram. Like most of the old ghetto, there’s nothing there left from that time. The German Army demolished the buildings in the area after the uprising. After the war, so little was left of them that, in the words of one witness, it looked “like a ploughed-up field.” The place where my great aunt was caught is now home to a magazine kiosk and a stand selling footwear. The place where she was shot is buried under Stalinist apartment blocks. Her gravesite is unknown, but it might be near the local mall. Only the old tenements remain, though probably not for much longer. Two of them are about to be pulled down to make way for an Austrian-owned hotel.
My aunt doesn’t live in Warsaw anymore. A few years ago, she moved to a country house in the Northeast. She runs a small guesthouse that caters mostly to the Ukrainian workers and Swiss owners of a window-frame factory. The area is extremely quiet. The most exciting thing in any given year is usually the arrival of migrating storks in spring. Not too far away, about forty miles down a series of lovely tree-lined country roads, sit the remains of Treblinka.
Treblinka, like most concentration camps, was a ruin from the moment of its completion. Never intended to last a long time, the camps were built hastily and improperly. Wooden barracks were set directly on the ground; roofs leaked from the outset. Many of the buildings at Auschwitz collapsed immediately after the war. That, or they were disassembled by scavengers looking for firewood and building materials. Many of the buildings falling into ruin there now are already reconstructions, built in the 1960s after the camp first gained official protection.
Almost everybody knows about Auschwitz. Some know about Treblinka. Far fewer know about Belzec, to the south. Practically everything there was disassembled or burnt down and buried before the Nazis evacuated the camp. Archaeologists digging there in the 1990s discovered a series of mass graves.
When they probed underground, their drills were stopped by a thick layer of charred bones. The bodies in the bottom of the trenches were preserved, but had turned into a kind of human soap, through a process called wax-fat transformation. A different kind of alchemy.
Only two people are known to have survived Belzec. One was killed by Poles a year after the war. The other was a soap maker from Lwow.