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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.

Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust," has reclaimed a huge swatch of his Westside neighborhood.” width=”320″ height=”282″ srcset=”https://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/detroit-white-house-Dabls-resized.jpg 1280w, https://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/detroit-white-house-Dabls-resized-204×180.jpg 204w, https://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/detroit-white-house-Dabls-resized-768×677.jpg 768w, https://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/detroit-white-house-Dabls-resized-1024×902.jpg 1024w” sizes=”(max-width: 320px) 100vw, 320px”>

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) (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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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

36 replies on “Artist Relocates Abandoned Detroit Home, Dropping it at the Corner of Appropriation and Ruin Porn”

  1. If he bought it, than it is his to do with it as he wants to with it, as long as it’s not illegal. You don’t have to approve.

        1. Cool. They know that. Why is everyone saying shit we already know? Doesn’t mean they can’t have a contradicting opinion about it. Y’all are a lot angrier about the fact someone disagrees than the author is in her disagreement.

  2. And the photo exhibitions on the same subject are….? Just another medium. I think the author is out of line on this one.

  3. I never understand this particularist fervour. Artists have always spoken, eloquently, and with great understanding, about plights they do not directly experience. It’s an element of community, and imagination. Imagine a world where Flaubert had feared to write a woman character in Emma Bovary? It’s so depressing how culturally conservative the left has become via the post-modern obsession with one’s own “difference”.

    1. No, (white, usually male) artists have always thought they spoke eloquently and with great understanding about plights they do not directly experience. Sometimes they actually do.

      Flaubert was writing fiction, not reality.

      “It’s so depressing how culturally conservative the left has become via the post-modern obsession with one’s own “difference”.”

      You mean via the post-modern realization that not everyone is a straight white male and that those who aren’t actually matter just as much as those who are and should be treated and represented as such.

    2. No, artists have not ALWAYS spoken eloquently. Just because you make art doesn’t make you an eloquent or smart person. I say this as a white artist.

  4. Besides the author and her few drinking buddies, who in Detroit really laments the absence? This is a ridiculous stance, and Matty Smith so far nails it.

  5. Now let’s extrapolate that sentiment and imagine how the Greeks feel about the Elgin Marbles, or any other culture whose precious artifacts have actually been stolen without any renumeration…

  6. This is really quite an embarassingly narrow minded piece of writing. The author’s ego obscures any perspective beyond her own. She has clearly entrenched herself in some intense (and entirely subjective) feelings that would be better suited for the pages of her personal diary or the ear of a grief councelor perhaps. She has managed to entirely dodge the work of exploring a fairly complex and nuanced subject, worthy of genuine thought and serious discussion, with nothing more than a tired (and at this point cliche’) dismissal as “ruin porn”. Lazy. I’m sure she was quite pleased with herself and had a great time pretending to be an art writer–I myself could have done without it. Yawn.

    If you are interested in Mendoza’s work or the subject of blight in art and would like to read some facts about it, I found an actual article here:

    http://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2016/02/24/detroit-art-ruin-porn/80754212/

    1. The irony of dismissing this article as facile and emotional and then linking to Freep.com is delicious.

  7. The only thing “ham-fisted and obtuse” is this article. If the artists made a precise copy of the house and left the precious dilapidated shack where it was, the article would probably read the same.

  8. Worst art “review” ever.

    The author of this and others who are upset for political reasons are missing the point and art of this installation. It’s a pointed commentary about the U.S.

    And in fact, the reactions to this born of subjective reasoning are misplaced.

    Be angry. But direct that anger at the right people: Wallstreet fatcats, banking Industry and those who decided that they were too big to fail (the government peeps who are puppets of the 1%)

    “Seen in a very simplistic way, this would be an exploitation,” Mendoza said last week from Berlin. “But seen in a profound way, this is about connection. I could do one of two things as an artist going back to my country and seeing problems that are inherent in the society. I could ignore them, or I could embrace them. I chose to embrace them.”

    Mendoza, who is white, didn’t start out to make a grand statement about Detroit, the issues of urban blight, the impact of racism or the darker currents of capitalism. He was merely looking for a way of reconnecting with his identity as an American after living abroad for 24 years.

    But the backstory of what Mendoza calls “The White House” offers a reminder that once an artist commits to an idea, it’s impossible to predict where it may lead. And the negative reaction he’s received in some quarters reinforces a truism about the intersection of art, images of decay, race and class in contemporary Detroit: It’s complicated.

    -excerpt from http://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2016/02/24/detroit-art-ruin-porn/80754212/

    1. The point of the installation doesn’t really matter all that much to many when that point is built on the appropriation and exploitation of the people of Detroit.

      Also, the point of the installation is far far more “boring and trite” than the comments above you labeled as such.

      1. Ah, you speak for “many”. I see. I speak for myself and don’t presume to speak for others. So as for the artist exploiting “the people of Detroit”….seriously? You’re going to go with that?

        Are you a Wallstreet fatcat, banking Industry CEO and or one of those who decided that they were too big to fail (the government peeps who are puppets of the 1%)? Or perhaps you work for Shkreli or a similar pharmaceutical company?

        Clearly your opinion of the installation as “boring and trite” is wrong. The very opposite in fact. Outrage doesn’t seem to occur over that which is “boring and trite”.

  9. I do understand where the writer is coming from, since it’s one thing when a found object is a urinal, and another when it’s someone’s former home. As a evocation of America with the title “The White House” there are clearly many layers of reference, and as explained in the article others have linked to, the project provocatively conflates the personal/artistic and political. Mendoza’s involvement with a city like Detroit, as he attempts to engage with his identity as an American citizen and successful artist, makes sense from this angle- the work is complex and definitely deserves more careful consideration.

      1. I’m aware that it wasn’t the writer’s home, though I did find the statement from the former owner interesting and wonder if the writer is aware of his involvement.

  10. When artists ‘look the other way’ with respect to issues of appropriation they’re simply choosing to ignore their own precarity and the outright theft of their own livelihoods. The narrow-mindedness of so many artist commentators here is truly disheartening.

  11. Thank you, Sarah Rose Sharp, for speaking out. If Mendoza has the right to buy a house in Detroit and reassemble it in Europe to satisfy his personal agenda, as he clearly states, then people surely have the right to say what they think about it. It’s a complicated issue that Mendoza stepped into, but I agree that people doing the hard work every day of recreating a city as devastated as Detroit deserve more attention for their efforts than people who swoop in and exploit, or just benefit from, the destruction and suffering for their own interests, whatever they may be.

    I think what Sharp is talking about is how we define what is important; what is considered cool. If I bring back a piece of radioactive rubble from Hiroshima, a brick from an oven in Dachau, or detritus from New Orleans following Katrina to display as “art,” will I be cool? Probably not to the survivors, who experienced the real thing.

    1. I’m not convinced the artist was trying to be cool. l look at the work and see something evocative of personal experience. If the legacy of the particular place becomes part of the story then maybe this is something even more compelling. None of that prohibits us from caring about current issues in Detroit (or not, accordingly). The article comes from a point of view that assumes insensitivity on the part of the artist that really can not be shown.

  12. Couldn’t it have just as well been a house from somewhere else? Looking at Ryan Mendoza’s paintings, there are other images of houses, mostly suburban looking. Seems like a personal expressionistic stroke, rather than something that the artist thinks is ‘cool’. I wonder how he selected the house, acquired it, and managed to actually get it shipped to Rotterdam.

    1. It could have. But any place else lacks the “ruin porn” cache of Detroit. If it is a house from some random place it doesn’t “say something” like one from Detroit does. What intentionally selecting a house from Detroit says in this context isn’t very good, though.

      1. Detroit is nothing special- this has happened before in other towns. There is still industrial poisoning happening in the Northeast, old decrepit buildings from the industrial revolution, cities that have fallen into decay. Places like Lowell and Worcester, who’s plight at one point was just as bad as Detroit.

  13. Just an art historical note here — Kyong Park toured a Detroit house around Europe in the ’90s (there’s a squib on it in this book review of installations by architects –http://we-make-money-not-art.com/book_review_installations_by_a/). This has maybe more to do with the image of Detroit in the European imagination, as a key emblem of the decline of American post-war power and social standing than it does with art tactics (e.g., appropriation) per se. The morality of it? Abstain; not fond of moral arguments against artists’ work.

  14. Wait, I’m sorry, but is the argument really “You’re not from Detroit so you can’t make art that references Detroit or uses material from Detroit”? Because if so I guess we have to dismiss most artistic endeavour altogether.

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