Perhaps the most compelling abandonment art evokes emotional absence, the literal loss of people if not whole ways of life that once inhabited the buildings, communities, and discrete places in ruin art. Mental hospitals and schools, for instance, are routinely featured by photographers because they once housed emotionally intense experiences, be it the depths of mental illness and the despair of incarceration or the innocence of childhood and the hopefulness of education. Those powerful but ephemeral feelings are in some ways heightened in hindsight by the decay of the buildings themselves, whose decaying shells help us see change and imagine what has been lost. In many cases ruined spaces aesthetically evoke social “illnesses,” like the stigmatization of mental illness and the health care abuses implied in the shell of an asylum; the decline of industry underscored in an abandoned factory; or the changes in mass leisure and post-war suburbanization that led to the collapse of grand city theaters.
Few abandonment sites paint more compelling if idiosyncratic emotional absences than Holy Land USA, a Waterbury, Connecticut religious park that closed in 1984. Abandonment art routinely depicts amusement parks, whose ruins cast a captivating aesthetics of imaginative play and imply a certain innocence. Yet Holy Land USA breaks from the conventional amusement park in both its subject matter and the materiality of the decaying park. The park has been the focus of numerous abandonment artists and urban explorers drawn to the host of eroding Holy Land dioramas. Amusement parks often figure in abandonment art since its meanings are rooted in pleasure even as their ruins tragically underscore the advance of nature.
Holy Land USA is also a compelling symbol of faith, and perhaps even more so in decline than it may have had at its height as a tourist attraction in the 1960s and 1970s. Abandonment artists routinely examine churches, which symbolize something ostensibly timeless, capture the depth of hope invested in some spaces, and evoke both the consequence of faith and the decline of religion. Like amusement parks littered with aesthetically novel and fascinating things, churches provide exceptionally powerful aesthetic spaces, especially in decline: church spaces can be visually arresting, often-monumental shells through which light streams in captivating ways through now-absent congregations. Just as amusement parks often reveal the shifts in mass-consumed leisure in the 21st century, churches document the 20th-century city, forlorn in many neighborhoods depopulated by choice and circumstance alike. Abandonment art paints churches as symbols of the collapse of the urban core, and the ruin’s symbolism as a dead space shallowly intones the decline of religion itself.
Holy Land USA was the inspiration of Waterbury lawyer John B. Greco, a devout Catholic who began construction of the park in 1956 with the ambition to “bring people closer to God.” Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and various biblical stories were represented by unique, handmade figures and structures whose mixed scales, hand-crafted style, and decorative deities might be interpreted as both kitsch and craft. The park was roughly akin to the sacri monti (i.e., sacred mountains) that dotted Italy during the late 15th and early 18th centuries. Like Greco’s Holy Land, the sacri monti recreated the Holy Land for pilgrims unable to venture to the near East. Greco and a team of volunteers made the park’s dioramas representing Biblical moments including Bethlehem, Daniel in the Lions’ den, and the hilltop of the Crucifixion, crafting the exhibits from whatever they had on hand. In 2005 the Hartford Courant indicated that the distinctive Holy Land ruins “featured a non-working, doorless upright freezer housing a statue of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, and a Garden of Eden display consisting of naked mannequins — Adam and Eve — amid fake plants inside a mobile home.”
Greco had traveled in the Near East and visited some of the spaces represented in his park, but the park borrowed from popular cultural symbolism and pure imagination alike. The park’s hillside, for instance, was covered with an illuminated Holy Land USA sign like the Hollywood letters, and in 1997 a Boy Scout project restored the letters. Yet other displays like Herod’s Palace had no stylistic reference to any classical architectural form and instead looked like a modest shed laid out on a putt-putt course. After Greco’s death the park was inherited by a Catholic religious order, falling into disrepair even as its idiosyncratic style attracted photographers and repelled style arbiters. In 2002, for instance, the New York Times indicated that “the gray plaster Temple of Jerusalem, affectionately called `unhistorical and funky’ by one local religious scholar, now more closely resembles a prop from a Japanese monster movie.” The Times described the park as “Catholic-oriented religious kitsch — much of it miniaturized and built with scrap machine parts.” The Daily Show dispatched Stephen Colbert to the scene in 2002, examining the disagreements over the park’s preservation and the projection of kitsch onto faith.
Unlike kitsch, though, Holy Land USA certainly seems not to have been fabricated as intentionally garish excess; instead, it looms as heartfelt folk art whose symbolism seems melodramatic only because it was proselytizing, and appeals to the soul rarely are articulated with subtlety. Pictures of Greco’s park now expose its hand-crafted essence of chicken wire figures, recycled plywood, machine parts, and paper mache now eroding into the Connecticut hillside. In 2008 the eroding 56-foot cross planted on the hilltop was replaced by a 50-foot steel cross, but the remainder of the park appears to be in relatively rapid decline. The ruins of Holy Land USA depart from utterly commercial material shows of faith consumption (e.g., The Holy Land Experience), and in its decline Holy Land USA paints a compelling aesthetic of faith and folk art. Like the most compelling ruins, it provides a visually arresting evocation of absence, in this case evoking the proselytizers and pilgrims who once trooped through the park.
Holy Land USA References
Deserted Religious Theme Park Izismile
Help Save Holy Land USA facebook
Holy Land Shaun O’Boyle
Holy Land USA agilitynut
Holy Land USA Amy O’Neill
Holy Land USA bdodge
Holy Land USA Bill Franson Photography
Holy Land USA Center for Land Use Interpretation
Holy Land USA Deserted Places blog
Holy Land USA Huffington Post
Holy Land USA I Think that I Would Die
Holy Land USA Institutional Green
Holy Land USA New England Journal for Aesthetic Research
Holy Land USA Roadside America
Holy Land USA Roadside America flickr page
Holy Land USA This is Connecticut
Holy Land, USA: From place of pilgrimage to creepy destination Washington Times
Holy Land USA Then and Now jenniferrt66 flick’r page
The Catholic Transcript Online 2008 Cross May Spark Revival of Holy Land USA. The Catholic Transcript Online
Frances Chamberlain 2001 The View From/Waterbury; A Hilltop Landmark Undergoes a Revival. New York Times 4 November.
Martin Kearns 1986 Man Who Built Waterbury’s Holy Land USA Dies. The Hartford Courant 11 March:B1.
Ann Marie Somma 2005 At Holy Land USA, A Vision Crumbles: Waterbury’s Faded Monument Of Religious Kitsch Is Still Controversial. Hartford Courant 28 August.
Paul Zielbauer 2002 A Sight That Inspires Ambivalence; Ruins of a Religious Park Await Restorers or the Bulldozer. The New York Times 12 November.
Good Samaritan Inn image courtesy Cousin Dave
Holy Land USA sign image courtesy Nick See
An astounding number of web pages document abandoned materiality, encompassing a broad range of architectural spaces including asylums, bowling alleys, industrial sites, Cold War sites, and roadside motels as well as smaller things like pianos and even scale models of abandonment. This ruination lust is not simply the province of a small handful of visual artists, hipsters colonizing Detroit, or recalcitrant trespassers; instead, it invokes something that reaches far deeper socially, has international dimensions, extends well into the past, and reflects a deep-seated fascination with—if not apprehension of—abandonment. The question is what explains our apparently sudden collective fascination with abandonment, ruination, and decay. The answers are exceptionally complex and highly individual, but there seem to be some recurrent metaphors in these discourses.
For “urban explorers” (a term that might loosely include artists, photographers, archaeologists, and curious folks alike), such journeys seek out “abandoned, unseen, and off-limits” spaces that imagine ruination in a wide range of artistic, emotional, scholarly, and political forms. Many of these urban explorers and artists see themselves as visual historians, documenting the architectural and community heritage reflected in abandoned spaces. For instance, Jonathan Haeber’s urban exploration blog Bearings explains that “I’m just an eye. I’m just a camera. … An urban explorer is just a documentarian. … We only appreciate the creations that are overlooked. … It is what remains that is the democratic equivalent of a revolution.”
This is a politically circumspect expression of the explorer as a visual chronicler who records the prosaic material dimensions of abandoned material heritage. It focuses on the power of aesthetically documenting abandonment, often to fortify a general appreciation for the breadth of heritage but not always in especially articulate ways. Urban Ghosts: Forgotten Places and Urban Curiosities, for example, argues that its mission through such images is to underscore that “History is all around us, on every street corner. Almost every place has a story to tell, but so much goes unnoticed, or simply pales into insignificance alongside heavy-hitting giants like the pyramids.”
The thorough Guerilla Historian page argues that urban exploration can produce a historical narrative that is complicated by the physical and aesthetic depiction of ruination, arguing that “Staring into the unfamiliar past, artificial environments and composites of micro-histories is a way to construct a depth perception for our own timeline.” This focus on the experience of exploring ruined materiality is not at all novel, but the Guerilla Historian envisions this producing a historical narrative focused on people’s story-telling. Such a people’s history of ruination is based on grassroots commitment to the details of everyday heritage that some observers believe is outside conventional academic history. Guerilla Historian suggests that “If history is written only by the winners, we are all losers. I come from a place where history is something you can walk on and climb on, something to be found and felt. Come with me. Our past has been relegated to weighty dusty bookshelves in this culture, treated as dead weight that holds modernity, innovation and progress itself back—I disagree. Our past is always obscured behind the veil of contemporary interpretation, and this work represents mine: a world where the past is freed from rotting pages and can teach us who we are.” Some urban explorers share a comparable vision of their historiography as a foil to mainstream narratives; this risks over-stating the conservatism of academic historians, but it does capture that much of everyday materiality is absolutely irrelevant to mainstream historians, and urban explorers (including most historical archaeologists) celebrate the everyday world even as they acknowledge the profoundly complicated histories of loss in America.
Many of these projects focus on how the photographic representation of abandonment is utterly dependent on the bodily experience of a creative, curious, and sympathetic eye moving through ruined landscapes. Matthew Christopher’s Abandoned America page has thoroughly chronicled urban abandonment, and his assessment of abandonment hinges on the physical experience of moving through these ruined landscapes, which he refers to as the “visceral experience of entering a parallel universe.” In an Atlantic Cities article on “ruin porn,” Christopher acknowledged that “It was a case of that old cliché, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words.’ … When I’d try to talk about the presences that seem to linger in these places, people would look at me like I should be in an asylum myself. When I showed them pictures — they’d suddenly get it.” Many if not most urban explorers believe that a visual record of a place is uniquely documented by a photographer who thinks creatively and embraces prosaic ruination, taking pictures in ways that our sight may not otherwise have seen and stressing what Travis Parno calls “the potency of the imagination.” Beauty in Decay, for instance, aspires to “walk in the eerie footsteps of long departed souls through haunted houses turned to dust and industrial complexes surrendered to nature,” arguing that “to understand the siren song of these places requires a certainly more poetic mindset than one might be used to occupying. Think back to your childhood for a moment and it all begins to make sense. … At the very point we cross the border from childhood into adolescence we cross real physical borders too. It’s the moment in our lives when we test the boundaries.”
For some of these explorers, this is more than an exercise in taking good pictures or breaking into buildings. The Beauty in Decay project acknowledges that with “a digital SLR camera and High Dynamic Range software it has become very much easier to take awesome photographs,” yet they do not reduce it simply to an aesthetic exploration; instead, they argue that “photography appears to be the symptom and not the disease.” Rather than reduce urban abandonment to voyeuristic curiosity or shallow artistic vision, the Beauty in Decay project suggests that explorers “in the comfortable and over-protected ‘first world’ are living in an enforced and extended state of childhood. They have remembered that they are capable of having unmediated experiences of reality and they welcome the fear that may (or may not) come with those experiences. The fear itself is the gateway to go through. It’s the gateway that leads for many to ‘wonderland’. This is the world through the looking glass that in some dark corner of every soul, we are all looking for.” This frames urban exploration as the pursuit of meaningful experiences in an over-built world that provides a false security; it is in the ruins of that very world that we encounter ourselves and our society and plumb the depths of our most unsettled sentiments about ourselves and modernity.
Many urban explorers characterize ruin as “beauty,” a romantic nostalgia with deep historical roots. For urban explorer Jonathan Haeber, for instance, the ruined landscape provides “beauty and ephemerality,” securing its aesthetic appeal from its very ruination and the decay inevitable in all materiality’s return to nature. The implication of this notion of beauty is that the seeds of decay are in all materiality and technology, and we acknowledge this transience through our own willingness to see that ruination all about us. One somewhat overwrought description of the Beauty in Decay project rhapsodized that urban explorers “collectively put forth a ground cry against a modern culture that embraces the new, polished, uniform, and mundane. Urban explorers find the beauty—layers of graffiti by years worth of writers, multi-hued peeling paint, antique objects, someone’s initials left in the dust on a broken stained glass window—and physical manifestations of memory that abandoned, impermanent urban spaces can hold.” This views decay as traces of memory, a somewhat romantic notion of the ruin as a pleasing fantasy whose materiality haunts the present but does not invoke the future.
The most distinctive definition of the relationship between beauty and ruin is a rapidly emerging school of photographic art that uses abandoned ruins as the stark backdrop for fashion images or nudes (for a relatively SFW example, see Beauty in Decay compiler Romanywg’s facebook page). For instance, visual artist Miru Kim’s “Naked Spleen” series depicts her nude in a variety of urban ruins, explaining that “Experiencing feelings of alienation and anxiety in the city–a city that has increasingly become more surveilled and commodified–I began to understand how many artists and authors suffered from severe bouts of depression, inertia, and isolation, which the term spleen embodies. One of the ways I escaped such feelings was to visit desolate and hidden places in the city. … Exploring industrial ruins and structures made me look at the city as one living organism. I started to feel not only the skin of the city, but also to penetrate the inner layers of its intestines and veins, which swarm with miniscule life forms. These spaces—abandoned subway stations, tunnels, sewers, catacombs, factories, hospitals, and shipyards—form the subconscious of the city, where collective memories and dreams reside. … As I momentarily inhabit these deserted sites, they are transformed from strange to familiar, from harsh to calm, from dangerous to ludic.” This actually invokes a common urban explorers’ desire for an unmediated experience, it simply inflates the sensory dimensions of that experience and produces more jarring images by juxtaposing a nude with ruination. Others have used urban ruins as a very different sort of backdrop: For instance, the Gakuranman site’s guide to urban exploring includes the story that one urban explorer “tells us that she has also bumped into crews shooting adult photography and video on more than one occasion, which was quite embarrassing for both parties.”
Matthew Christopher has a sober explanation for the meanings of his images of abandonment. He somewhat counter-intuitively (if rhetorically) argues that his images have no intended moral or political lessons, arguing that each picture of an abandoned place “filters a fraction of another microcosm of loss. This place was many things to the many people who knew it: a source of income, memories of good times with family and friends, maybe even an inspiration or an ideal. Those things are gone now. Here is the corpse left behind, which we can parade around for our entertainment, and wax philosophical.”
The specific reasons for focusing our gaze on those “corpses” reveal the complicated sociopolitics of ruination. Brian Dillon argues that late-18th century Romanticism turned the mutilated remains of classical artworks or the fragments of buildings to a “randomly chosen instant,” celebrating decay and the ruined fragment but resisting a unified narrative. This perspective would seem well-suited to many urban explorers fascinated by material details and idiosyncratic experiences in abandoned spaces, and their fascination with preserving the moment is reflected in the recurrently invoked “code of honour” to “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” That code aspires to freeze the moment of abandonment, merging the abandoned ruin with nature and leaving it to “natural” decaying processes.
Yet many observers approach abandonment as an exposition of the “ruins of modernity,” casting ruination scholarship as fascination with the “corpse” of a history we believed to be resistant to transience if not permanent. This is a perspective that risks romanticizing stability, even if at least obliquely reflecting a simultaneous discomfort with modernity’s lust for “progress.” In 1911 Georg Simmel argued that ruination is inevitable, and he suggested that ruins emphasize the folly of political and cultural permanence. Julia King’s fascinating study Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past has examined how contemporary historic sites have constructed “ruins” to frame historical interpretations on otherwise blank landscapes. Her assessment of such manufactured ruins in Southern Maryland dissects the inelegant ideology of aestheticized historical ruins that borrow from 19th-century romanticization of ruins, seeking a permanence that inelegantly effaces the landscape of racism in places like Southern Maryland. Such permanence is what Albert Speer aspired to ensure for the Third Reich in his “theory of ruin value”, which described architecture designed to decay gracefully and aesthetically. In his 1970 memoirs, Speer indicated that during a construction project the
“Nuremberg streetcar depot had to be removed. I passed by its remains after it had been blown up. The iron reinforcements protruded from concrete debris and had already begun to rust. One could easily visualize their further decay. This dreary sight led me to some thoughts which I later propounded to Hitler under the pretentious heading of `A Theory of Ruin Value.’ The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that `bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.”
Despite this pronouncement coming from a Nazi, Speer voiced a common aspiration for architecture to provide a state a historical, ideological, and material presence long after its fall. Naomi Stead cleverly argues that Speer’s caricature of the ahistorical ruin was a reaction against the relics around him that were obviously part of his social moment and testaments to its failures. The distinction between most contemporary ruins and Speer’s idealized relics is that most of the abandoned factories, theaters, and asylums in our midst have a historical patina but are nevertheless clearly of a moment we recognize as “ours.” Speer instead aimed to produce ruins that belied their age and merged with nature, casting these buildings as timelessly historical.
Matthew Christopher persistently uses the metaphor of “death” to describe his images of abandonment, arguing that “At its core, the photography of ruins is fundamentally about death. … the very basis for the entire genre is that the photographs are of abandoned–or dead–spaces. … the key element is that what they once were created for is no longer. Much in the same way, a host of chemical and biological processes continue in a corpse but it is still no longer considered living.” This assessment of ruination art, exploration, and abandonment discourse focuses on the corpse of modernity retaken by nature, a gaze that can be reduced to romantic nostalgia (ironically, a central feature of modernist gaze), or it can view the ruin as an active entity that has a genuine politics revived by an aesthetic gaze.
This “death” underlies Christopher’s political argument that his images document not simply an abstract notion of abandonment and decay; instead,
“Each one represents failure. On a micro level, this is evidenced in the building itself and the failure of the owners to fund/maintain whatever it was established for. On a macro level, it often applies to the community’s inability to support the business, and to an even greater extent can be indicative of lost industries and economic collapse on the county and state level. I would argue that the culmination of these failures shows a trend even greater (and more ominous), that of an overall social decline leading to the fall of an entire empire.”
This sober if not dystopian perspective views images as “a eulogy for the lost ways of life they represent, a statement of their emotional, spiritual, and metaphoric relevance to our everyday lives, and a sense of the visceral experience of entering a parallel universe of silence, rust, and peeling paint.” These profoundly consequential tales of abandonment are counter-intuitively told with exceptionally prosaic spaces, but many artists of ruination and post-apocalyptism routinely depict the world’s most famous landmarks, with appearances from Big Ben, Red Square, Cristo Redentor, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Pentagon, Harrods, and of course the Statue of Liberty. This casts ruination into the future and places us clearly within a material and historical landscape constantly in processes of decay and ruination.
Christopher invests his politics into his images but is counter-intuitively reluctant to assume the political meanings of the pictures. Instead, he argues that “As is often the case, I have the question–not just an idle curiosity, but a big gaping hole where meaning is supposed to be–but not the answer. … Why does the husk of the building photographed matter? Why does the moment this image captured matter? Why does it matter that you’re looking at it now and reading this?” For Christopher those are open questions posed by images, and it remains for us to turn them into political and policy statements that address built preservation and illuminate the structural conditions that produce contemporary abandonment.
2005 Fragments from a History of a Ruin. Cabinet 20.
2010 Decline and Fall: Tracing the History of Ruins in Art. Frieze 130.
2012 The Psychology of Ruin Porn. Altantic Cities.
Julia A. King
2012 Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville. (partial reading version on google books)
2003 The Value of Ruins: Allegories of Destruction in Benjamin and Speer. Form/Work: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Built Environment 6:51-64. Available online at Naomi Stead’s wordpress site.
Urban Ruins web pages
There are an astounding number of web pages documenting abandoned structures, ruins, and the aesthetics of urban exploring. Try starting with this list of pages.
Potato factory image courtesy Harm Rhebergen flick’r page
Nike missile silo image courtesy www78
Cocoa Palms resort image courtesy peptic_ulcer
Cork building image courtesy slinky2000
child’s chair in asylum image courtesy World of Good