A Question of Timing

Ruins in the Modern Day


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Everybody is talking about ruins these days. That could be a bad sign. Detroit, in particular, seems to have captured the fancy of the ruin enthusiast. Detroit has experienced a 25 percent reduction in population over the last 10 years or so. Whole areas of the city have been abandoned. You can see entire neighborhoods in ruin, skyscrapers in ruin, a vastly depopulated downtown area. Camilo José Vergara, a photographer specializing in urban decay, once suggested in the mid-1990s that large sections of downtown Detroit be turned into a “skyscraper ruins park.” It would be a testimonial to a lost age, preserved in stone and metal and glass. Today, people sometimes travel to places like Detroit and other Rust Belt locations for the sole reason of gazing upon the ruins.

There have been the dissenters, too, the people who do not take or do not want to take aesthetic pleasure in industrial and urban ruins. The phrase “ruin porn” has made its way into popular parlance. Noreen Malone wrote a piece for The New Republic this year about our love of pictures of the abandoned streets and buildings of Detroit. She argued:

These indelible pictures present an un-nuanced and static vision of Detroit. They might serve to “raise awareness” of the Rust Belt’s blight, but raising awareness is only useful if it provokes a next step, a move toward trying to fix a problem. By presenting Detroit, and other hurting cities like it, as places beyond repair, they in fact quash any such instinct.

Malone is right about one thing: Vergara’s photographs do not suggest a next step. Photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (who took pictures of Detroit for a traveling exhibition entitled “The Ruins of Detroit”) portray an inexorable process of decline. Marchand and Meffre’s photograph of an interior of the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church, for instance, suggests something post-apocalyptic. Books are strewn across the top of a wobbly piano. Bits of mortar and dust cover what was, not so long ago, finely polished woodwork. It seems as if people left this place suddenly and amidst some catastrophe, never to return. These photos, and the plethora of amateur ruin documentation to be found on the Internet, are not created so much out of the need to raise consciousness as out of the need to stand before these ruins in awe. It isn’t clear what you do next, after awe. The only thing that is clear from these photos is that the way forward is not clear. From the perspective of the ruin, the future always lacks clarity for the simple reason that ruins look mostly backward.

Having spent some time in Northern Europe last year, I can say that this problem is not isolated to the American Rust Belt. A swath of ruined cities and landscapes stretches from the Ruhr valley in Germany, across Holland and Northern Belgium, up through cities such Manchester in England, and then, skipping over the pond, renewing its rusty march across America’s Northeast before reaching a terminus somewhere in western Illinois.

Another way to put this would be to say that a large geographical portion of Western Civilization currently lies in ruin. Industry, as we all know, has moved elsewhere, to the global south, mostly to China. Industrial civilization as the West has known it from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution sometime in the late 18th century until sometime a few decades ago, is no more. We have been aware of this for some time. We’ve talked about it frequently. People have written books and articles. Studies have been commissioned. Politicians have made speeches. Some would like to reverse the trend. Others see it as a foregone conclusion. But the basic facts have been known and understood for many years now.

And yet, the ruins are still surprising. They are shocking and terrifying and beautiful and sad. It is one thing to read a paper or to attend a conference in which learned studies about post-industrial society are learnedly discussed. It is another thing to drive around the outskirts of Charleroi, in Northwest Belgium, where one brick factory after another fades away into the forest greenery like a medieval castle going to pot in one of the less traveled corridors of the Loire Valley. As you stand near a pool of fetid water outside one of these crumbling factories, you realize that the era of the Industrial Revolution (at least in this part of the world) is truly dead, never to be recovered. It is thus possible to visit the Rust Belt with the same mood one would have when visiting the chateaus of France or the medieval cities of Spain. You are looking at the remains of a civilization that has passed away. We are not ready, perhaps, to think about visiting Detroit in the same way that we would visit the Palais des Papes in Avignon. But what, really, is the difference?

The contemporary artist most associated with ruins is probably Anselm Kiefer. He was born into a ruin, after all. That’s to say, he was born in Germany in 1945. He was born into a place that had just been bombed to smithereens from the air and then smashed apart at the ground by the Allied advance on one side and the Red Army advance on the other. Kiefer’s paintings and sculptures reflect a sensibility that was forged during the breaking and smashing of things, and then further shaped in an environment where one wandered through the wreckage.

Kiefer works with dirt and broken glass. He likes rusty metal. He paints in streaks of black and grey and in clumps of color that go on the canvas to rot. In a scene near the beginning of Sophie Fiennes’ recent movie about Anselm Kiefer — Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow — we find the artist throwing dust and dirt over a large grey painting depicting forlorn tree trunks in a forest nearby. The entire painting, which must be somewhere in the range of 10′ x 20′, is covered and then shaken with the help of crane and forklift. It is, literally, unearthed from the rubble.

The rest of Fiennes’ film is a lingering meditation on the spaces of Kiefer’s longtime studio complex in Barjac, France, which he has recently abandoned for another site. During his many years there, Kiefer dug underground tunnels, deposited paintings and sculptures in rooms left over from the dilapidated silk factory that once existed there, burned things, forged giant books with blank lead pages, and otherwise constructed a landscape of ruin from his own imaginings.

The movie’s last scenes show Kiefer in the midst of directing the building of a series of concrete towers, many of them multiple stories in height. They are constructed in the haphazard manner in which you might build a tower out of playing cards, except with giant blocks of concrete. The towers totter and veer in all directions, some propped up with the giant lead books that Kiefer has been making for years. The result is a mini city of ruins. It is a city not of this time, or of any recent time. In fact, though the teetering towers are made of concrete and lead, they seem to have been brought onto the Earth from olden times, maybe the oldest times.

Kiefer himself relates the towers not to anything in our contemporary experience but to biblical stories. That is where the title of the film comes in. “Over your cities, grass will grow,” is something, Kiefer tells us, said by the biblical character Lilith. In fact, Lilith does not appear in the Bible, but there are Talmudic and other stories about Lilith as a first wife of Adam, before Eve, who quarrels with Adam and leaves him to become a kind of witch or demon who plagues mankind. In many of the tales, Lilith kills children. Sometimes she seduces men in order to have their children and then kill those same children. She is a figure of devastation and barrenness. As the flip side to the story of growth and fecundity (be fruitful and multiply), Lilith gives personification to the sense of futility embedded in all human affairs.

We don’t talk about it very much, but the unspoken assumption about contemporary civilization is that it will never go completely to ruin. We acknowledge that many past civilizations met exactly such a fate, that over their cities, grass did grow. But things are different now. Certainly we have worried, in decades past, about nuclear annihilation and the devastation it would bring. Today we worry about environmental sustainability and global warming. Haunting thoughts of the apocalypse linger in the social imagination. But the dominant thought is one of an endless moving forward through time that is always the same.

That is why Kiefer’s structures are so strange and alluring. Where do they come from? What do they point to? How are they able to step outside of the structure of time and the experiences of daily life that the rest of us inhabit?

Much merriment was recently had throughout contemporary civilization when Mr. Harold Camping of Family Radio proclaimed that the end of the world would come on May 21, 2011. The day came and went. Time churned on exactly as it had before. Everyone’s expectations about the world’s continuity, except those of Mr. Camping’s followers, were confirmed. There was now an opportunity to wag fingers, draw moral lessons about the dangers of fundamentalist thinking, and have a laugh or two.

But was there something else to all the laughter? The obsession with Camping seemed out of all proportion. Why did his proclamation so easily catch our attention? It was almost as if we were all using the opportunity of Camping’s crazy prediction in order to experience our own interruption from the usual cycle of time. Talking about how some crazy person had predicted the end of time became an exciting event in itself. Living through the experience of the world not ending had its own exhilaration. We all piggy-backed, you might say, on the bold insanity of Camping and his followers in order to indulge some impulse that lurks deep within, some half-understood intuition that there may be a different ordering of time, or that there could be, or that there should be some radical break.

It was simultaneously troubling and amusing to hear how Camping’s followers had liquidated their assets and gotten rid of all material possessions in order to prepare for the Rapture. Countless news stories focused on the utter absurdity and self-destruction of such actions. Was there also, though, a fascination with such actions? To ridicule others for getting rid of their material possessions is to admit, at the same time, that one’s own life is defined and determined by those same possessions. These people were, after all, in their foolish actions, proving that it is possible for something to matter more than material comfort, income, possessions, and dry goods. These people believed, genuinely believed, that the world was going to end and that they were going to be judged. Many of them, in the face of such judgment, gave everything away. The last thing they wanted to be tainted by, in the Great Judgment To Come, were all the shiny new things that define so much of our daily activity.

On the final day, they were all left standing among the ruins of the lives they had led. They were left with scraps. They had become unworldly, like the lonely tunnels and broken ruins of Anselm Kiefer’s compound in Barjac. They had been visited by Lilith, given a glimpse of a different order of time. Those people are living ruins now, a strange testimonial to an alternate logic. Ripped out of the temporal continuum, they are here, but they are not here. Many of them will surely find their way back to the world that the rest of us know. Some, perhaps, will not. Our time will not be able to hold them anymore. The grass is growing upon them. • 7 September 2011