Any depiction of the decay of buildings follows a well trodden path, tapping into a tradition long embedded in western visual culture. Depictions of the ruin have a long history in art, from the Renaissance when they contrasted the ephemeral nature of human achievements against the eternal, through to the Romantic era when the tumbling monuments of antiquity were used to evoke the mythic decline of the classical age – the decayed building is a common trope enmeshed in our cultural narratives.
Any photographic image dealing with ruined buildings is going to attract inferred meanings from this tradition, and the images in Wastelands by British artist Dan Dubowitz are no exception. Here he shows his conception of wastelands as a series of colour images of buildings, mostly interiors that have been abandoned and given over to decay, undergoing a process of ruination. He shows the mundane and for the most part modern architectural spaces devoid of people but rich in the excrescent details of decay: a disused pub, post office and betting shop in Glasgow, abandoned factories, a former Berlin TB hospital, empty prisons and unvisited areas of Ellis Island in short sequences framed by short explanatory texts that builds into a longer narrative. Within the detail of these images metaphors of absence seem to abound. In one image a poignant clock sits stopped and silent in an East German factory space, watched by no-one; in another a broken surgical light hangs uselessly in an empty operating theatre, again and again floors are strewn with rubbish or collapsed ceilings, windows are broken, fittings are vandalised. Only in the final sections on Cuba do people enter the frame, seeming to both inhabit and adapt to the near ruinous buildings as lived spaces, running counter to the other images which have, as Dubowitz eloquently puts it, a "presence of absence".
Trained as an architect and obviously versed in historical architectural projections, he offers us the images straight on, as square format single point perspectives seemingly lifted straight out of Renaissance art, which cannot help but invite allegorical readings from an earlier age. These readings however are distorted by a long history, a post-classical and postmodern visual culture informed by the photographic image. Indeed photography has had its own relationship with the ruin, and this has had an especially rich history in British photography. In Victorian society, the early travel photography of Francis Frith was were avidly collected by a Victorian middle class, its antiquarian elegies feeding a vicarious taste for the exotic but also feeding a nostalgia of a vanished past in an increasingly industrialised society. The ruin had become objectified; something to be visited, viewed and consumed by legions of tourists following in the footsteps of the Reverend Gilpin whose 19th century travel guides exhorted the leisured classes to consider the ruin to be viewed as part of the ‘picturesque’ landscape. In doing so ruins lost social meaning contingent with the buildings' original functions, but instead picked up elegiac metaphors of classical decline, laced with an implicit understanding of Victorian imperial power.
As for Frith, so for contemporary photographers, as they move through time, ruins and their images will become detached from the specificity of their past to pick up new allegorical meanings in the present, carrying meaning contingent with the cultural viewpoint of the viewer. Indeed, given the traditions it is understandable that there has been a lot of work dealing with ruination in recent years - a notable example is The Blue Room by Eugene Richards but there are many others, and locations such as Pripyat and Detroit have not exactly been uncharted territories recently. These will inevitably bring their own inferences to play, specifically narratives of damage or decline. The recent work by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre in Detroit is a case in point. Here there is a sense of the epic, of grand buildings falling apart; a palpable sense of the ‘classical’ ruin, inferring a decline of American economic power.
Dan Dubowitz’s work is quieter and less obviously read; rather than the single subject, he concentrates on a diversity of mundane spaces, such as prisons, factories and hospitals, crucially not a single locality, but various sites of social control and regulation, sites of human interaction. We get the sense however that all human interaction has ceased, so that the spaces cease to be spaces in the social sense but instead post-functional places where natural entropic processes have gained the upper hand; in this way the prison ceases to be a prison, the factory a factory, the church a church. Bereft of people and falling into disrepair, the buildings become as is the case for classical ruins, carriers for other meanings we care to project onto them. Rather than just evoking nostalgia as might a picture postcard of picturesque ruins, his work's modernity makes us look forward, forward to a kind of future envisioned in the 2007 book A World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which analyses how our cultural relics would decay given the instantaneous removal of humanity through biological, chemical and ultimately geological processes. The book therefore could seem to function like a form of vanitas painting – those 17th century still lives whose purpose is as a reminder of human fragility and of the inevitability of death. But rather than the emphasis on an individual, by dealing with the skeletal relics of social space these images look beyond the frailty of the body to remind us just how thin the skin of our civilisation is.
This could all be very downbeat and maudlin, but what at first glance would appear to be a jarring note, the Cuban work, actually lifts the book. True, images of Cuba can be a bit of a cliché, but in here they work in a different way than the normal run of the mill travelogue material. The images of people inserted into a book of otherwise depopulated spaces remind us that the city is in fact in flux, and as Dan Dubowitz has explained:
"….[wastelands] are never properly understood as an ongoing and permanent aspect of the city, rather they are widely seen as something passing, ephemeral; a place being wasted that needs to be put back into use, an aberration that needs to be cleaned up in order to restore the city. This perception that wastelands are ephemeral and temporary can be true of individual sites, but paradoxically not at all representative of the overall picture of wastelands across a city. All cities have a proportion of abandoned area at any one time, the amount fluctuates, but it is a permanent and ongoing condition of any place at whatever scale."
We are given the idea then that the spaces of decay are in fact transient, ripe to re-developed and reused. As he mentions in his texts, many locations are primed for destruction or development, so we are given the idea of circularity; of processes of decay but also a hinted idea of human renewal, of each generation re-appropriating wastelands, rebuilding and re-using and in doing so re-imagining the social space. These are themes that have been addressed in Dubowitz’s earlier site specific public art, and in fact his photos from the Ancoats area of Manchester grew out of a site specific work called Peeps, whereby Dubowitz walled up decayed interior spaces of the abandoned factory spaces and invited people to view via spyholes. Working in a similar way, this book seems to subvert the decontextualised commodification of ruins, tidied up and made safe as sites of touristic appropriation through the heritage industry. Instead he seems to invite us to peer into these forgotten spaces asking us to consider how we respond to the ephemeral nature of inhabited space much as an architect might, as sites of possibility.
Not trained as a photographer, the work is not as slickly produced as some photographers addressing architectural in the deadpan way, however this does not detract. Their slightly edgy quality adds to the feeling that we are prying into unvisited and secretive spaces. The book is not perfect – some of the editing might be a little tighter and some of the locations could have been more developed (the Vockerode powerplant in Germany is only given three images contrasting with the greater focus on Orford Ness and Ellis Island) – but these are minor quibbles as on the whole the work is high quality, both thoughtfully composed and shot. Decay is a risky subject to tackle, and it is a brave move by Dan Dubowitz to do so given the amount of work done in the area Decay is always going to be seductive and in the wrong hands it could end up being a facile clichéd narrative of economic decline, environmental destruction, or perhaps merely an unquestioned nostalgia of a vanished past. By building a subtle narrative structure Dan Dubowitz manages to overcome such pitfalls and has managed to produce a coherent and successful body of work that taps deep into our visual culture, inferring complex allegorical messages and associations without being preachy or simplistic, asking us to consider the possibilities of the abandoned spaces within our urban environments in new ways.
Published by Dewi Lewis
176pp, 106 colour plates
290mm x 290mm