Opinion

Artist Relocates Abandoned Detroit Home, Dropping it at the Corner of Appropriation and Ruin Porn

Artist Ryan Mendoza in front of his "The White House" project at the 2016 Art Rotterdam fair (photo by Geert Broertjes, courtesy Art Rotterdam)
Artist Ryan Mendoza in front of his “The White House” project at the 2016 Art Rotterdam fair (photo by Geert Broertjes, courtesy Art Rotterdam)

DETROIT — You can’t really talk about expatriate American artist Ryan Mendoza‘s “The White House” project without talking about appropriation. Appropriation has a long and storied history within the context of art, and that makes it easy to intellectualize a process that, at its heart, means taking something from someone else. Maybe that’s okay, when the person or entity you’re taking from is aware of and on board with being part of a conversation. When what you’re doing is taking a blighted house, piece by piece, out of the city of Detroit, and putting it on display in Europe, it’s not okay. The problem with “ruin porn” — a phrase no one is more wearied of hearing than Detroiters — is that this isn’t Machu Picchu, this isn’t Pompeii. This is a living city, and it is home for nearly 700,000 people. You can’t just come and take pieces of it away to display out of context (I mean, obviously you can, but it makes you an asshole). Detroit is not your museum piece. We are still using that.

Artist Olayami Dabls, whose sprawling outdoor installation, "<a href="http://www.mbad.org/">Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust</a>," has reclaimed a huge swatch of his Westside neighborhood.
Artist Olayami Dabls’s sprawling outdoor installation, “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust,” has reclaimed a huge swatch of his Westside neighborhood. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Oh, really? You Detroiters need every single one of your broken, disused houses? You know what? Yes, we do. There is a thriving and exciting practice of reclaiming these spaces, on an individual level by artists like Tyree Guyton (whose Heidelberg Project has grown from contentious eyesore to contentious international tourist destination over its 30-year development), or by galleries and collectives like Powerhouse Productions and Popps Packing. You have the fellas over at Young World fundamentally redefining what a gallery is, with a three-season space carved out of a former industrial district, proving you don’t actually need electricity or running water to put on world-class exhibitions.

There is also an ever-increasing flow of people to the city who feel its spirit and hope to contribute to its comeback in a generative and holistic way. Does that come with its own host of issues, as far as navigating the existing landscape in a way that is respectful to the residents who have held it in trust for long years of financial collapse and governmental failure? Yes, it does. You know what doesn’t help with that? People who come from out of town and take things away, just because they can. It is that exact wielding of privilege and resources that creates schisms between outsiders and Detroiters — who are some of the most heartfelt, warm, and hard-working people you will find in our nation. That you take this piece of the city and its history is bad; that you take it and show it out of context, make it a symbol overseas for a situation that is dynamic beyond the ability of any casual visitor to understand in a short period of time, is unconscionable.

The Motown Records House at Heidelberg Project, prior to being lost to arson (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Motown Records House at Heidelberg Project, prior to being lost to arson (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Detroit’s blight is part of its legacy, and it stands for something. It demonstrates what happened here, and it creates an imperative to rectify the situation. To take a piece of it away deprives it of its purpose, and deprives we who live among it the opportunity to reconcile with it. Whether that means gathering to elect officials who care about what happens in the neighborhoods, or taking it upon ourselves — as many Detroiters do — to intervene with and repurpose those spaces, we’re sorting that out. But until you are part of Detroit, you really don’t know what any of it means, and your attempts to make symbols out of a living reality will feel ham-fisted and obtuse.

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