Our fascination with ruins is nothing new. Artists on the Grand Tour through Europe in the 17th century sketched the crumbled columns of Greek temples; 19th-century Romantic painters included overgrown shells of the ancient world on their canvases. There’s an ongoing allure with the fall of the mighty civilizations that came before us, and how nature reclaims them no matter what. “Man proposes, God disposes,” the proverb goes.
Lately, though, it’s the decay of buildings just decades-old that has the biggest hold on our imagination. There are recent photograph projects on abandoned Brutalist homes, abandoned NASA launch sites, and abandoned secret Stasi spaces. Even filmmaker David Lynch put out a whole book of his abandoned factory photographs. And the photography has earned the nickname “ruin porn” for sometimes sensationalist views of modern ruins.
At Williamsburg’s Front Room Gallery, a group exhibition looks for the cultural context of abandoned places. Beyond Ruin Porn includes two rooms of photographs where people are totally absent, but human-made structures are under collapse.
There’s no label text on the walls, so it would be easy to walk in and just see the show without its intended context. However, if you take the time to read the available information, there are some gripping stories. Phil Buehler has haunting views of the now-demolished Greystone Park Hospital that seem like anonymous abandoned asylum shots, until you discover this is where Woody Guthrie lived out his last days, and many others who suffered through the eventual overcrowding of the hospital. Sasha Bezzubov with Jessica Sucher have images of a bright overgrown Ashram in India, where in recent history the Beatles wrote songs, and now is draped in silence.
Stephen Mallon has equally quiet shots from his American Reclamation series on the USS Radford being submerged for an underwater reef. Paul Raphaelson’s photographs of the Domino Sugar Factory could be a little softer in their edited contrast and still demonstrate the strange machines left behind in the Brooklyn factory, but nonetheless capture the now-gone industrial heritage of a Williamsburg site becoming another luxury condo. Amanda Alic trekked to amusement parks and resorts for her Off Season project, documenting relics of summers past, and Sean Hemmerle has one of the most striking images — a spiraling staircase in a Beirut building that seems to defy gravity — contrasting with his Rust Belt series on America’s own ghostly places.
Each photograph, despite its location, is of some place only recently abandoned, and while the intended social relevance of Beyond Ruin Porn is subtle, each artist captured some ephemeral scene from our recent ruins. The moments in these photographs are likely now gone as the buildings continue their decline, or are destroyed, and like painters of the past considering Roman ruins, mark a fleeting moment in time.
Beyond Ruin Porn continues at the Front Room Gallery (147 Roebling, Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through February 21.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.