Beneath the Surface of Abandonment
Abandonment art is routinely lamented for its literal and metaphorical focus on aesthetic surfaces; that is, abandonment art risks reducing the weathered, damaged, and derelict exteriors of abandoned buildings to an ahistorical style that fails to illuminate processes of ruination. Some critiques of ruin art are guilty of their own romantic desire to paint transparently uplifting or “authentic” pictures of a place; in many instances, they somewhat xenophobically resist a host of “outsiders” spilling into eroding urban cores; and some critics of “ruin porn” hazard ignoring the genuine structural decline of much of urban America. Nevertheless, a shallow gaze on abandoned landscapes may indeed hazard trivializing complicated historical decline by fixating on the visual dimensions of ruin.
Ruins may well have assumed their elevated contemporary prominence because of the digital documentation of abandonment: the likes of flick’r and tumbl’r are awash with ruin images; instagram-armed camera phones document a decaying planet; and artsy urban transplants have led a digital dissection of the ruins in their midst. Images of decline can quite productively evoke waste, loss, and transition and fuel interventions against structural processes of ruination; the challenge simply is to avoid romanticized notions of an aesthetic decline disconnected from deep-seated inequalities.
An archaeological approach to ruination ideally sifts through layers of ruination and visually and materially interprets processes of creation, growth, decline, and ruin. Some artists may be borrowing much the same method to creatively rethink ruins. Polish artist Ewa Fornal, for instant, might be circumspectly characterized as an abandonment artist. Fernal, who lives and works in Ireland, toys with the distinction between aesthetic surfaces and the historical depth of ruination. Many photographers work with the visual representation of abandonment, but Fornal is among a handful of artists who work with the material detritus of ruins (e.g., the 2010 Modern Ruin exhibit in Dallas).
Distinct from “found object” or “trash art,” ruin works use material fragments of specific abandoned places. Fornal’s series from the Magdalene Laundries, for instance, borrows fragments from Dublin’s Magdalene asylum, which closed in 1996. For over two centuries, the Irish Magdalene asylums incarcerated women in physical labor such as laundry work, so they are often referred to as the Magdalene laundries (see Lu Ann de Cunzo’s 1995 archaeological study of Philadelphia’s 19th-century Magdalen asylum). In May, 2013 the Irish government agreed to pay up to 58 million Euro’s in compensation for survivors of the Catholic Church-managed Laundries.
Images of ruins attest to the experience of being physically present in a ruin, but of course the image—and every other representation—loses the immediacy of standing in such a space (compare Sarah Wanenchak’s essay on time and ruin photography). Fornal’s Magdalene laundry collages aspire to evoke a variety of injustices wrought by the church and state alike against women, but her fragments of the Dublin laundry derive much of their power from their complete banality; that is, the paint chips scraped and melded into new pieces reveal years of cracked paint, varnish, and wall adornment in the laundries. Fornal’s “I’m the Memory of Mannix F.” project likewise focuses on collages taken from a prosaic Dublin wall, which “dislocates the surface itself … to build new system of references.”
Such artistic approaches to the fragments of ruins do something much like archaeologists have always done; that is, archaeologists gather banal things that reside at the edges of our consciousness and construct narratives, but our gaze on the material record is ideally broad and without the selective aesthetic eye of an artist. The effort to press beyond aesthetic and material surfaces, though, is perhaps common to much of the art and archaeology interpreting contemporary ruins.
Magdalene laundry image from wikipedia