Beneath the Surface of Abandonment

Fragments of collage ruins (Ewa Fornal)

Fragments of collage ruins (Ewa Fornal)

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.

A collage from "I'm the Mempry of Mannix F" (Ewa Fornal)

A collage from “I’m the Memory of Mannix F” (Ewa Fornal)

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).

Early 20th-century Irish Magdalen laundry (wikipedia)

Early 20th-century Irish Magdalene laundry (wikipedia)

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.

Fornal's Magdalene Laundry collage (Ewa Fornal)

Fornal’s Magdalene Laundry collage (Ewa Fornal)

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.


Ruin collage image, I’m the Memory of Mannix F, and Magdalene laundries collage from Ewa Fo Fornal

Magdalene laundry image from wikipedia

Posted on October 29, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on scraping off the past and commented:
    Paul Mullins historical archeologist shares his thoughts on Abandonment art relating to my work

  2. In ‘Beneath The surface of Abandonment’ Paul Mullins touches on a number of references which are relevant to ruin art. I would suggest that the ‘Ruin’ Art he describes is very much a rehash of early Romanticism however, our response is drawn towards nostalgia rather than The Sublime experience of the true romantic. I take issue with his use of the word ‘banal’ to describe fragments of the past, we invest meaning upon the world, different specialisms add meaning or transform it, A shiver runs down the spine of most archaeologists when they see and touch a thumb print in a 3,000 year old shard of pottery. The reason is the connection, the past and present exist in the moment, the experience intensified by the archaeologist’s knowledge. This experience goes beyond narrative, it touches our humanity in the same way as art.

    The rise of feminism and post ,modern attitudes towards narratives is influencing how art is made and meanings presented. Art itself is a metanarrative in that it can use any source to communicate itself. Specialisms like archaeology are important in the work of artists like Ewa Fornal, to use fragments simply as new materials or to recreate a kind of nostalgia misses the point. Fornal uses the duality of meaning, the object as artefact, the object as art material, the object/artefact within the context of art and narrative. If she did otherwise, her work would be reduced to a fading romanticism, a painless history.

    I enjoyed reading Paul Mullins piece and it has inspired to think more on this subject. Why do we have museums? why do we need objects to tie us to our past, Is it a way of holding on to time, Sometimes there is like difference between a relic and a wishing stone.

    Gareth Lane

  3. Ruins are always configured as such because they are apprehended by a beholder. This means that aestheticization of ruins is inevitable. Perhaps it’s not the aestheticization that’s the problem, but rather what results from the former. What we really need is aesthetics and ethics.

    • Aesthetics, is a matter of cultural context and history (unless you believe in a metaphysical ideal) Ruins are not ‘always apprehended as such by the beholder.’ only those existing within a culture which romanticises such edifices. The Anglo Saxons had a highly tuned aesthetic and yet Roman ruins and artifacts were not viewed as anything other than ruins and a source of building materials. I suggest there is no need for aesthetics other than the shifting, contextualised definitions we have now. As for ethics it’s addition only serves to highlight the pretentious nonsense of this comment.

  4. I liked your post very much. Didn´t know anything about ruin art etc. and I learned a lot about it. If you agree, I would like to link this post to one I am planning at my series on Archaeology & Art (have a look at part 1 here, the English version is below the German one!:
    Greetings! Maria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: