Some of the most arresting images of recent years are those of ruined Detroit, Michigan by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.
They include the United Artists Theatre, ready to give us vertigo with its height and expanse. But it is monotone, silver-grey – a Narnian witch has withered the unfurling decoration. It’s Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: celebratory splendour gnawed and eaten, enough beauty left to mock us, but fragile as ash.
There are images of hotels, apartments, railway stations – windows like gouged eyeholes of 20th century excess, flaking like the make-up of septuagenarian starlets.
This is ruin on the grand scale. The artists record it on camera and talk of the fall of empires. It’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Statue of Zeus or the Sphinx. It is part of something mighty fallen, and reminds us that humans are here and then were here.
Do we think of ourselves when we see these images? Or are we thinking grandly, of the human race?
Place an upturned plastic chair in the centre of the ruined dancehall and we might respond differently. This is something from within our lifetime, not a distant heritage. It’s the chair we sat on at school, the chair we sat on at interview, the one we stacked at the end of countless work presentations. The chair belongs to now. Yet it’s in a dead ballroom because it has had its time and belongs to the dark (or in the photo, the light…).
Stop, we think – that shouldn’t be there like that. We can hear the scrape of its metal legs and feel the warm grainy plastic and our living, and it hurts, because we know that’s where we’re going too, sometime.
But we are intrigued, like the Romantics who saw ruins lit by moonlight. They saw dark things and spectres that rose to give Byronic shivers of pleasure. This was fear to sip from books and shut away afterwards. Buildings also shut things away, and are well-worn metaphors for the mind, with dark attics and cellars rarely visited.
They also witness our lives – this is where we are born, learn, work, love and die. Is our energy so powerful that it is absorbed by plaster, brick, stone and wood? Do we think houses become human?
Old houses and empty houses turn quickly into gothic, romantic heroines. Daphne du Maurier writes here of the first sight of her home Menabilly, which partly inspired Manderley in the novel Rebecca, where the house is as much a character as the protagonists:
Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still, and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.
Houses are not meant to be empty. This scares us. They can decline and rot, and remind us of our own bodies. Throw the windows wide, they say. Let some air in.
An empty house beckons us to look into the unknown, an after life: anything could be lurking in the cellar or the attic. We have always known that. So we paper and paint and polish, and keep the structure from returning to the earth. Renew and replenish. Keep the soil from quietly forming in the gutters, moss from lining the path, trees from tapping at the window.
All those Miss Havishams alone, cobwebbed, time-stilled. A house might change hands, and belong to a family. ‘The house lives again,’ people say, because there is energy and love and conflict.
But ruined buildings remind us of the end. And we are fascinated.
The Ruins of Detroit exhibition is showing at the Fontana Fortuna Gallery in Amsterdam from May 12th to June 30th 2012.