Articles

Detroit Ruin Porn and the Fetish for Decay

by Kyle Chayka on January 13, 2011

Andrew Moore, “Cooper School, Detroit” (2008-2009) (image from andrewlmoore.com)

Hearing “Detroit” today brings to mind some ideas specific to the post-2000s: a city emptied by the flight of business, money and population, the crisis faced by American car makers during the economic crisis, a bunch of grand buildings built while times were flush and now as empty and silent as a modern Stonehenge. The last idea, the connection of Detroit with its failing, crumbling architecture, has now become such a dominant visual path for artists depicting the city that an entire genre has arisen: Detroit ruin porn. The voyeuristic pleasure of ruined grandiosity is nothing new though; we have only to look to depictions of earlier ruins to see the same fetish for decay.

In a Studio 360 segment, Jennifer Guerra explores why artists create ruin porn and how Detroit citizens are reacting to it. In an interesting conversation, Guerra talks to Dan Austin, editor of the architecture information site Buildings of Detroit. Austin notes that artists and photographers from all over the world have contacted him to act as their guide to Detroit’s ruins, help for quick photo and art projects. These “parachuters” leave Detroit just as quickly as they arrived, contributing little but to the city’s image of decay. Ruin has become Detroit’s brand: what the city is known for is its slow death, like Rome in collapse. It’s not surprising, then, when Austin compares Michigan Central train station (“champion of architectural ruin porn” in Detroit) to the Roman Coliseum.

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, image from “The Ruins of Detroit” (2005- ) (image from thestapleton.com)

Photographer Andrew Moore notes that there’s “something about mortality” in the choice to depict ruins. Far before Moore’s own photos of tree-enveloped Depression-era houses and decrepit skyscrapers, art has had a long relationship with this idea of mortality and the obsession with documenting fallen remains. The idea of momento mori jumps to mind when thinking about Detroit’s ruin porn; literally translated as “Remember you will die,” the genre uses a symbolic language of dead things, skulls, skeletons, wilted flowers, to communicate the inevitability of death and the importance of living a just life.

Architectural momento mori exist as well in ruin porn from centuries ago. Think we came up with anything new, shooting cavernous disused spaces? These photographers would do well to catch up on their Piranesi, an 18th century architect and printmaker whose etchings of the ruins of Rome are staggeringly epic, baroquely detailed and tragically decayed, a clear forerunner to the visual language of the Detroit photographers. Think back on photographs of the Angkor temples in Cambodia, remains of what was once the largest city on Earth, or depictions of the Egyptian pyramids. These buildings and spaces are now dead, existing only as monuments to what once was and as prophecies foretelling every civilization’s eventual collapse. Nothing is forever, just check out Shelley.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “The Arch of Trajan” (18th century) (image from wikipedia.org)

In the apex of our era of high-flying capitalism, Detroit ruin porn functions as just such a momento mori, a call to remember that the same fate as Motor City could befall all of our great cities, all of our unstable accomplishments. I think Detroit ruin porn is so popular, and such a well-traveled visual avenue, in part because we want to be reminded that it could all fail. The voyeurism isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death.

There’s still hope beyond the whole imminent death thing, though. In an anti-ruin porn photo project called Can’t Forget the Motor City, Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis are documenting the living side of Detroit. Their photos show loving families, sunlit spaces and active communities. They avoid entirely the old visual language of momento mori and instead show a human scale portrait of a vibrant city.

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  • Kelly

    Stan Douglas did a photographic series for his Le Détroit project back in ’98: http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibitions/32/work_728.htm

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Those are beautiful photos, thanks for the addition. I can’t decide whether those look more or less “ruined” than the projects above… I think the projects above are more about showing the destruction, Douglas’s has some life to it.

      • Kelly

        Well also, Douglas’s are much earlier, when the ruins were more feral…

  • Anonymous

    I know there is a long cultural context to the notion of memento mori, but there is something really distasteful in such artistic slumming. There is so much more to Detroit than ruined buildings, and there is certainly more artistic vibrancy in the community’s responses to their circumstances.

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  • http://artstuffmatters.wordpress.com/ Artstuffmatters

    Thanks for grounding the theme to its art historical precedents and mentioning Romain Blanquart’s and Brian Widdis’ project which focuses on the people. I like how they are focusing on the vitality that still exists in the city.
    It would be great if these photos of the “ruins” and the residents were used to promote a project to save the city’s architecture and maybe create some jobs. The report on Michigan Radio, Photographing the so-called ‘ruins’ of Detroit, really adds to this discussion: http://www.michiganradionews.org/post/photographing-so-called-ruins-detroit.

  • Jillian

    While I do agree that it would probably be nice if “ruin porn” were somehow put to good use–to help Detroit in some more tangible way–I don’t know. Isn’t part of what makes for the “porn” part of “ruin porn” the fact that these photographers are turning something sad and ruined into something we want to look at? Something beautiful? And doesn’t that challenge you, as a viewer–because what does it mean to find beauty in decay? And what are the implications? I think ruin porn can raise valuable moral questions even when it doesn’t lead to direct action.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Definitely agree that this kind of spectacle can raise questions. With Detroit it’s become kind of overdone, but the thought behind it is interesting. @artstuffmatters Dan Austin’s Buildings of Detroit seems like an attempt to at least memorialize the buildings and document them, if not explicitly save them.

      • http://artstuffmatters.wordpress.com/ Artstuffmatters

        Yes, Austin’s project is worthwhile and probably useful to a wide range of people. However, I still think it would be great if these projects could help to save some of the actual buildings. Preserving the architecture could invigorate the city’s spirit and hopefully help to create some jobs. As we all know, seeing the architecture in a book or on a website isn’t the same thing as visiting or living in a city with the actual buildings. Of course, this type of endeavor would require collaborative effort, commitment, and fund-raising.

        • Jillian

          That’s definitely true. Detroit is unimaginable until you’ve actually been there. But I can only hope that seeing these kinds of pictures would pique someone’s–maybe some people’s–interest in the city, and maybe get them to visit, see it, explore it themselves. And then maybe they’d be inspired to help. And that would be wonderful.

  • nonanon

    I like that Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis’ project is one that has nothing to do with Detroit specifically and could be done in ANY city.

  • Instaxeis

    I made a Detroit ruin trip last August and I have to say nothing could have prepared me for what Detroit really is. I drove in from Chicago and had a great drive until passing the Ford Company offices on the freeway, then an overwhelming sense of anxiety set it. Had I not paid for my hotel room already, I would have turned back. It’s a pretty creepy sensation photographing Detroit. It’s beautiful and depressing and very hard to believe all at the same time.

  • http://twitter.com/rustik rustik

    My fiancé owns an antique store. He tells me that some objects have their value as “antiques” but there are other objects that turn into “art” because of the way they age. The object may not have any serious monetary value, but the incredible aging process breathes life into it due to it’s one-of-a-kind look that could never be duplicated, and it becomes art, and therefore more valuable. I wonder about this process and the city of Detroit. It’s decay is also it’s rebirth.

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