Ruination

Ruination

I was originally trained as a printmaker and spent many years making etchings. Gradually, I began to do photo-etching and from there moved into photography and digital image-making. My photographic practice is based on a more general aesthetic and philosophical interest in issues of temporality and mortality and the various fantasies of human subjectivity western culture offers us. The work is informed by my studies and teaching of western cultural history and, in particular, our culture’s deeply-rooted ideas about what it means to be human, ideas that continue to have influence today. Including pictures of contaminated architectural space, intertwined bodies and landscape, still life images of rotting fruits and vegetables, wax anatomical bodies, and visual expressions of imagined biological transcendence, my art work alludes to the art-historical tradition of Memento Mori, a Latin phrase enjoining us to remember that we are mortal and that we, too, will die.

D_21 Mountains, Figures, Pumpkins

D_21 Mountains, Figures, Pumpkins

Visually, the idea of Memento Mori was perhaps most fully developed in the genre of 17th century Dutch Vanitas paintings. These images, of flowers, fruit, tiny insects, sometimes butterflies, smoking candles and occasionally skulls, were meant to be evocations of the transience of human existence. The flowers and the fruit are symbols of earthly beauty and its ephemerality, reminders that all material life disappears while the kingdom of heaven alone remains. In a single image, painters would combine a universe of floral birth and death: buds, flowers in full bloom and flowers with drooping or fallen petals or being
consumed by insects are all included in the composition to indicate the inevitable passage of time and the approach of death. The viewer of these paintings was thus meant to meditate on the transitory nature of human life and the power of God and History. While for our contemporary post-Christian world here in Canada, this vision of an afterlife may not resonate as fully as it might have earlier, fantasies about human subjectivity in the face of death continue to circulate now as they always have.

Book of Hours 24

Book of Hours 24

For me, the photograph, in its connection with death, is precisely the right medium with which to meditate on our fantasies of timelessness and order in the face of the reality of temporal decay and ruination. In turning my focus on contaminated architectural space, for example, I see the way in which such buildings reveal the collapse of an imaginary wholeness and order. Since an imaginary order cannot literally be revealed in a material world, the white blank surface of a new building’s walls becomes a mask concealing difference and disorder, concealing all that is unsightly. Similarly, a building’s structural
integrity hides its susceptibility to time, change and decay. It is inevitable, though, that these pristine spaces of architectural rationality will become contaminated, either through deliberate destruction when the buildings are no longer wanted or needed or through the passage of time and benign neglect.

I am most interested in spaces which are abandoned, decaying, condemned or demolished. When buildings become contaminated with dirt, rust, garbage, rotting timbers, and pools of fetid water, they reveal the disorder, collapse, and disintegration that remain present in human affairs, irrespective of any fantasies of order. I examine these ideas in a series of digital images of condemned, uninhabited, decaying or abandoned buildings entitled Contaminated Architectural Space.

Some of the photographs contained in Contaminated Architectural Space are part of a series taken at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 35 kms north of Berlin. The camp is now a museum; in addition to following the path outlined for visitors to the site, I also explored areas of the former camp off-limits to visitors. The prescribed path turned left; I turned right and slipped through another small door in a big stone wall. Behind the door, I discovered a vast area of the camp that housed the SS army headquarters. Here the buildings were in an advanced state of decay; some, such as the SS Troop Theatre, seemed to be in the process of being refurbished, presumably for later display. Here paint peels off the ceiling and walls like burnt skin.

SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

Here in the photographic rendering of the interior, the principles of theatrical space are inverted. So, rather than the stage being the spot-lit focal point of the room, the stage is a dark, blank, black void in the centre of a room into which brilliant light from the outside streams. The photograph mirrors or reflects physically the shining of light onto the hidden, the illumination of the dark by enlightenment.

The troop theatre still retains some traces of its former grandeur with its rows of windows leading the eye to the stage’s edge. Inside the SS Troop’s Green Monster Casino, however, the ceiling’s collapse has allowed nature in; the floor is stained with water, leaves, bits of paper, and random filth. In between rotting boards, puddles of oily water reflect the sky. The effect these contaminated spaces had on me was striking; coldness, desolation and a deep sadness for all the lost souls who had passed through or perished there.

Green Monster Casino

Green Monster Casino

In the diptych Interior, Troop Theatre the geometry of the image presents a kind of infinite recession into nothingness. The focal point of the right-hand panel is the small window opening onto the real world outside this self-contained, self-referential interior space: is there light at the end of this very dark tunnel of human history? The diptych format serves several functions: firstly, representing a space and its negative alludes to all that lies hidden from sight within the space itself – the lives and souls lost here. Secondly, the negative image is meant to give an impression of radioactivity; the site still bristles with a kind of danger. Finally, the inversion/reversal of image signifies the inversion/reversal of all human values experienced by the inhabitants of this site. It alludes to the idea that the traces of these souls remain here, still informing a visitor’s experience of the space. In this particular example, the positive image is designed to drawn a viewer into the space; the colours are darker in the foreground and become lighter as one’s eye travels into the background and out into the light.

Interior, SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

Interior, SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

Conversely, in the right hand panel the colours are lighter in the foreground and get darker as the eye travels back into the depicted space until finally arriving at the dark blank nothingness of the closed window in the background. This use of colour works to give the impression of being blown away from the image. The temperature of the colours used also contributes to the simultaneous push and pull of the image: warm colours in the positive images draw one in, while the cold ones in the inversion push one away from it.

In these images of rooms a sense of recession in space is created by the rows of walls or pillars that recede into the background, framing a distant focal point. There is a very strong geometric architectonic to all the pictures. The spaces represented are bounded and limited, often confined to strict geometrical shapes. I am very interested in the geometry of images and pay particular attention to the framing of a picture and the enclosure of a particular space. In doing this, I make use of lines and edges to sharply define and mark out territory. In addition to the use of receding squares and rectangles, I also employ the triangle as a compositional device. In the Oven diptych, for example, the triangular shape generated by the intersecting brick walls draws the eye into the image and into the heat of the furnace.

Oven

Oven

In the diptych Coming and Going, I am interested in the ideas of light and dark, visible and invisible, entry and exit, rising out of and going into the darkness – descent into the underworld, ascent into the afterlife. In the ancient world women were assigned the tasks associated with liminal states/boundaries between this world and the next, specifically birth and death. Women were the midwives and mourners whose work accompanied the passage of the soul from one state of being to the next. Who knows what comes after? In many of these pictures the viewer is positioned in the doorway, the boundary between one space and another. We are also positioned metaphorically on a boundary between this physical and psychic space and the one to come. One cannot see where the journey ends – the door is closed, the stairway hidden.

Coming and Going

Coming and Going

In the Washroom, Prisoners’ Barracks the window to the exterior is there, but blank. Nothing apparently exists outside this geographical and psychic space – the outside world vanishes. In the Oven the door is open, leading not to life but to death and destruction. Here the negative expresses intense heat and conflagration, symbolizing the greater holocaust in its meaning of total burnt offering.

Washroom, Prisoners� Barracks (detail)

Washroom, Prisoners’ Barracks (Detail)

In these works space appears as the architectural envelope or container within which absent bodies used to operate and function. Sometimes the space in an image is conceived of as a theatre, a stage with absent players. The principle animating this body of work is the idea of dissolution. Architecture is a way of framing material and space – when buildings disintegrate, for whatever reason, they allude to a more general principle of temporality and dissolution – everything temporal eventually decays.

Sometimes condemned buildings are beautiful in their emptiness; when the purpose for which they were built no longer occupies them, fragments of their past remain. Some echoes of former lives reverberate there. In North Vancouver, Canada, where I grew up, the old Burrard Dry Dock buildings which used to house a thriving shipbuilding industry have been demolished; before the demolition was completed, however, I snuck into some of the structures and recorded their emptiness in the soft, dusty light.

Interior, Burrard Dry Dock Building

Interior, Burrard Dry Dock Building

This picture is an interesting contrast with the SS Troop theatre stage image. While that picture was taken at summer midday, this one was taken at autumn sunset. As in the troop theatre image, here, too, light is streaming in the windows; in this case, though, the light acts as a kind of spot light in an interior that remains mostly dark. You might note that in all these images a sense of recession in space is created by the rows of wall or pillars that recede into the background, framing a distant focal point. Here the focus is on the illuminated central space, from which all productive activity has been removed. Only traces of its former function remain.

Combining documentary photographs and manipulated images, the works in Contaminated Architectural Space have some connections with the Vancouver School of photo-conceptualism. Like artists such as Roy Arden and Arni Haraldsson, I am interested in the built environment and its destruction and the impacts these have on its inhabitants. However, in terms of their aesthetic sensibility, my photographs probably have more in common with the work of people like Ed Burtynsky, with his beautiful images of industrial decay and degradation, images which are both seductive and repulsive.

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo. Side, Turkey

Ruination extends the ideas and issues addressed in Contaminated Architectural Space, works exploring decaying, condemned and abandoned buildings in Canada and abroad. It involves a photographic and textual examination of the ruin as allegory and the continuing fascination with ruination in modernity.

In modernity, the ruin is that which we are both drawn to and run from. During the 19th century the Romantics valorised the ruin; the less we actually see, the more we can imagine. Meaning is generated in the absence of meaning. The modern ruin, however, rather than being a remembrance of things past, is a ruin of the future – modernity’s dream of plenitude becomes a nightmare of failed utopias. Ruins provide us with instructive examples of dreams and glories lost; will we be the ones to escape the logic of ruination that haunts our history? Ruins are mute witness to modernity’s hopes – progress, speed, interconnectedness, and liberation – and its catastrophes – incessant wars, pollution, devastation of resources and human bondage.

Untitled 3

Ruination (work in progress) 2007

In Turkey and Greece the archaeological traces of a “glorious” past, evident in ruined temples, libraries, houses, theatres, cities, can serve as warnings for a hubristic modernity whose own artifacts of ruination – industrial sites, abandoned villages and towns, refugee camps, concentration camps, prisons, battlefields, landfills, lands made uninhabitable by nuclear and industrial disasters – make visible a component of the dialectic whereby, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, modernity undermines itself and collapses into mythology and self-destruction. I see the ruin as modernity’s mirror, the unthought Other haunting our various fantasies of progress and plenitude.