Ruin Lust: fettered pleasures at Tate Britain

31 03 2014

 

J M W Turner, 'The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey', 1794

J M W Turner, The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey (1794)

Ruin Lust – on at Tate Britain until 18 May – explores artists’ fascination with ruins from the eighteenth century to the present day. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition takes us on a journey through the many meanings of ruins: as sites of aesthetic pleasure, melancholy reverie, or war-torn devastation; as places of memory or premonitions of the future; as sites embedded in landscapes or encompassing entire cities. From Turner’s delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey from the 1790s to Laura Oldfield Ford’s disquieting paintings of present-day housing estates, ruins have for centuries been imaged by artists as places to think through the meaning of time: for all ruins, whether ancient or modern, invite (or perhaps demand) a kind of awareness that moves slower than normal, one that inhabits (for a moment at least) a gap, or a place apart. 

Joseph Gandy, 'A Bird's-eye view of the Bank of England', 1830

Joseph Gandy, A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England (1830)

Indeed, before we even enter the exhibition space of Ruin Lust, a series of quotations invite us to think in a certain way, to make the link between ruins as physical objects and what’s going on in our minds, whether an extract from W. G. Sebald’s late novel Austerlitz (2001) or James Joyce’s apocalyptic musings in Ulysses (1922). Why is it that gazing at ruins seems to mirror something fundamental in the human body? The title of the exhibition suggests that the act of looking at ruins is invested with libidinal energy, a kind of revelling in the sensual excess of decay that is perhaps rather unseemly. Yet, very little in this exhibition is suggestive of the kind of ‘ruin porn’ that is increasingly filling up the internet and the (electronic) pages of tabloid newspapers such as the Mail Online. Rather, here is ruin lust at its most refined, deriving more from the mind than the body. Only John Martin’s end-of-the-world bombast and Laura Oldfield Ford’s lurid canvases of post-punk revolutionaries waiting for action in ‘sink’ estates come close to the daemonic energy of the kind of ruin lust that draws in the crowds to the latest apocalyptic blockbuster or the Mail Online’s almost daily dose of ruin porn.

Jane & Louise Wilson, 'Urville', 2006

Jane & Louise Wilson, Urville (2007)

Indeed, much of the work on show in this exhibition is meant to direct us away from ruin lust towards a more contemplative or critical gaze. Thus Joseph Gandy’s extraordinary painting Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) shows John Soane’s recently completed building in the far distance future, its otherwise secure spaces opened up to view through a process of ruination. Here, ruin speaks of a kind of beauty in ageing, although to a contemporary viewer it cannot help but be a barbed critique of our bloated financial overlords. No lust here from the vantage point of a passing crow; only distanced longing perhaps. Back down to earth, Jane and Louise Wilson’s black-and-white photographs of the fantastical outsized sculptural objects that are the remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications speak more of alien presences than material excess, their mythic titles – Azeville (2006), Urville (2007) and Biville (2006) – signalling a temporal shift into some kind of mythic time. Like the revelatory ruins of the Statue of Liberty appearing at the end of The Planet of the Apes (1968), the Wilsons’ photographs seem to disrupt conventional notions of time – are these the ruins of a defunct ancient civilisation or those of our own in the far distant future? 

Laura Oldfield Ford,

Laura Oldfield Ford, TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012)

What most of these representations steer away from is the sensual excess of the ruin, its power to overwhelm and envelop the subject, something the cultural geographer Tim Edensor has written beautifully about in his book Industrial Ruins (2005). It’s as if these images are saying: ‘don’t get too close to ruins – keep your distance so you can make them mean something else’. This pervasive sense of ruins as allegories is challenged directly by Laura Oldfield Ford’s paintings (and more generally in her practice as an artist). Rendered in shocking pink, her depictions of semi-ruined spaces are unashamedly tasteless and suggest that even (or perhaps especially) mundane dilapidation can be fertile ground for subversive desires. In TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012), the two young female figures are engaged in focused yet unspecified activity, amidst the shabby (but definitely not shabby-chic) interior of their modernist apartment. There’s something peculiarly repulsive about this painting, a feeling that is mirrored in the visceral quality of modern ruins. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens spoke eloquently about the ‘attraction of repulsion’ in Victorian London; Ford has rendered this in the contemporary city. Ruins, if they are ‘real’ rather than manicured, always produce this attraction of repulsion; they invite you to rub your nose in their material excesses, to roll around in their vulgarity, to delight in their repulsiveness. As Ford reminds us, to live in ruins is precisely to embrace them as ruins, to allow them to be places that incubate strange, fertile and potentially revolutionary desires.  

 





Red river shore: exploring the Medlock culvert

7 03 2014

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In common with many other urban watercourses across the world, Manchester’s smaller rivers are today all but buried beneath the city centre. As Manchester rapidly expanded and industrialised in the nineteenth century, its once salubrious watercourses – the Irk, Tib and Medlock – became notorious as appalling foul-smelling and polluted streams (or, rather, open sewers). Unsurprisingly, by the turn of the twentieth century, the courses of these rivers were largely canalised or hidden beneath brick and stone culverts. So, today, the Irk disappears beneath Victoria Station in a giant 1km culvert before joining the Irwell, the Tib has long since become a sewer, while the Medlock snakes almost shamefaced through the city centre in a series of culverts before emptying into the Irwell at Castlefield. Even in suburban areas, the Medlock was long ago forced underground, most notably in a 600m culvert under what is now the car park of the Manchester City football stadium straddling Miles Platting and Clayton.

1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

1. 1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

When Joseph Adshead made his extraordinarily detailed maps of Manchester in 1851, the Medlock was depicted meandering across open fields in Miles Platting; while the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 showed the river still open but straightened in its course (1). Culverting of this section of the Medlock began in 1905 and was complete by 1909. At the same time, a whole section of the river upstream in Philips Park was canalised with millions of red Accrington bricks, forming a walled bank, the fast-flowing water carried in an artificial channel. Today, Manchester’s ‘red’ river is being restored to its ‘natural’ state, the bricks being slowly removed in an attempt to rehabilitate the watercourse in Philips Park.

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

3. Inside the Medlock Culvert

3. Inside the Medlock culvert

It remains to be seen whether the tunnelled section of the river Medlock will remain in place – for it is here that one gets the strongest sense of a shackled watercourse, banished underground. Despite being relatively easy to access (a hop over a fence and a short wade through the water), the culvert is nevertheless a forbidding place: walking into pitch darkness goes against all natural instincts and the sound of running water is magnified by the cavernous brick tunnel (2 & 3). The Medlock’s waters may be technically ‘clean’, but, over the years and together with many smaller overflows that line the tunnel, they have created a fantastic array of shapes and colours on the brickwork, a petrified miasma that is at once beautiful and repellent (4).

4. View inside a side drain in the Medlock culvert

4. View inside a small side drain emptying into the Medlock culvert

5. Inspection chamber, the Medlock culvert

5. Looking up the inspection chamber flanking the Medlock culvert

There are other wonders here too: an inspection chamber that rises 30 ft to the surface in a series of concrete platforms that resemble the startling modernist geometries of Brutalism (5); and, further down, a resolutely Victorian series of steps down which tumble water from the Ashton Canal, which lies above the culvert (6). More unsettling are the remains of tombstones within the Medlock’s waters: flushed downstream in a calamitous flood of 1872 when the river burst its banks and inundated the cemetery next to Philips Park, carrying off dozens of corpses and headstones.

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal to the Medlock culvert

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal into the Medlock culvert

The strange coming together of the ultra modern, Victorian gothic and the downright morbid in the Medlock culvert characterises many urban underground spaces and is no doubt why they are so appealing to urban explorers. Indeed, the rich interweaving of contradictory elements witnessed in the Medlock culvert is exactly what is missing from the rhetoric that surrounds the current project to restore the river to its ‘natural’ state, which seems to speak of the river in a way that divorces it from the (industrial) history of the city. Perhaps the real imaginative force of the Medlock (and all urban rivers) lies at the point where it meets human attempts to control its power – producing in structures like the Medlock culvert a fecund melding of human and non-human forces.





Strange territory: Liverpool’s dockland ruins

14 02 2014
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Looking south along Brunswick Place to the docks.

Walk north of Liverpool’s magnificent Liver Building – leaving behind the bustling angular forms of the city’s new waterfront buildings around the Albert Dock – and you enter the liminal dockland zone – the northern part of a vast interconnected port system that stretches over 7 miles along the Liverpool bank of the river Mersey. In 1907 – at the height of Liverpool’s preeminence as a global port – the writer Walter Dixon Scott described the ‘romance’ of the city’s docklands, a ‘strange territory’ that formed ‘a kind of fifth element’ to the world – ‘a place charged with daemonic issues and daemonic silences, where men move like puzzled slaves, fretting under orders they cannot understand, fumbling with great forces that have long passed out of their control.’

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Today, those ‘great forces’ have seemingly abandoned Liverpool, wielding their power now on the eastern side of the planet, but their traces remain everywhere in the city’s docklands, which are perhaps an even stranger territory today than they were at the turn of the twentieth century. Walking north along Regent Road, which hugs the granite wall that encloses most of the docks (with their evocative succession of names – Trafalgar, Salisbury, Nelson, Wellington, Canada), one sees everywhere the material remnants of Liverpool’s former maritime dominance. First, surrounding Stanley Dock, are gargantuan abandoned buildings, including the world’s largest brick-built warehouse, completed in 1901 to store the vast quantities of tobacco that were then imported from the United States. Flanked by a host of other brick warehouses, the entire complex hovers between a state of ruin and recuperation, the largest buildings being slowly turned into apartments and, in the case of the Tobacco Warehouse, a vast hotel, while the smaller examples continue to languish in redundancy.

Brunswick Place

Brunswick Place

Effingham Street

Effingham Street

Ruined grabber, Huckisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Ruined grabber, Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Things become even stranger the further north one progresses. In the streets beyond Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3, the semi-ruinous buildings continue to live on in a variety of forms: as spaces to store and sell salvaged car parts in Brunswick Place; as unspecified ‘Units to Let’ in Effingham Street; or as offices for a stationary company in Princes Street. All of these streets face onto the docklands beyond, where enormous hills of scrap materials accumulate before one’s eyes (presumably waiting to be exported for recycling). It is as if one is witnessing the entire wastes of the world being gathered into one space – a spectacle that leads to a strange sense of temporal dislocation.

Hills of scrap metal, Huckisson Dock No. 3.

Hills of scrap metal, Huskisson Dock No. 3.

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

This feeling of being witness to the ‘great forces’ of material destruction is, of course, a mainstay in (post) apocalyptic cinema, particularly within the cyberpunk trend that began with the first of the Mad Max films in 1979 and has continued up to the present in The Matrix trilogy and the recent Robocop reboot. Within the cyberpunk genre, salvage plays a critical role in imagined apocalyptic futures, whether seen in the hotchpotch of technologies in machines in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or the appropriation of architectural ruins as domestic spaces seen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008). The image of ruins in cyberpunk is both romantic – a form of neo-Gothic revelling in the excess of decay – and also critical, namely of late-capitalism’s increasingly accelerated regime of ‘creative’ destruction.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walking in Liverpool’s ruined docklands (in effect, the type of real spaces that underpin cyberpunk’s alternative realities) is equally fraught with contradictions, from the startling aesthetics generated by the clash of serene emptiness with violent destruction to the melancholic sense of lives and buildings clung onto in desperation. Liverpool’s docklands are a landscape that simultaneously speak of past, present and future: what was exists as both material remnants and absent ruins; what is shows itself in the ingenuity of those who continue to use the semi-ruined buildings; what will be comes in the sense of the landscape as prophetic of what will (inevitably) become of the world under capitalism.





Patina and the depth of surface

2 11 2013
Rusted gates, Malta

Rusted gates, Malta

Patina – the visible signs of age on the surface of a material – is generally valued as a positive form of decay, and is manifest in a panoply of material forms: distressed wood, weather-beaten stone or brick, faded wallpaper, well-worn textiles, rusted ironwork, to name but a few. Whatever form it takes, patina signals the desire for a visual sign of authenticity, that is, material imbued with a history that speaks of ‘natural’ processes accrued over time. Paradoxically, in many cases, these visual signs of ageing are achieved very quickly and forcibly; hence, the widespread criticism of patina as yet another symptom of the post-modern obsession with surface at the expense of ‘authentic’ depth. 

Peeling paint, Emsworth

Peeling paint, Emsworth

'X' mark and successive water lines on a door in Lakeview, New Orleans, 2007. Photograph by Christina Bray (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

‘X’ mark and successive water lines on a door in Lakeview, New Orleans, 2007. Photograph by Christina Bray (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

Yet, patina can also be interpreted as a critical form of visuality. In a recent talk at the University of Manchester, archaeologist Shannon Lee Dawdy focused on the meanings of patina in the buildings of New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina.  The devastating hurricane of 2005 created so-called ‘Katrina patina’ – the characteristic residue left by saline water that overwhelmed New Orleans for weeks after the city’s flood defences were breached. Today, amidst the ruins of nearly 6,000 homes in New Orleans, many of the city’s renovated domestic buildings still have a large letter ‘X’ on their exteriors; in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, rescue personnel spray-painted the letter ‘X’ on all buildings to indicate that they had been evacuated. Many returning residents chose to conserve rather than erase these letters, which have become known, according to Dorothy Moye, as ‘Katrina crosses’. Here, patina functions as a memorial to a natural disaster. It is the architectural equivalent of the post-traumatic symptom, showing us the trauma of the past as it reverberates down into the present. By displaying the ‘wound’ inflicted by the trauma, this patina has the potential to contribute to the wider work of future healing in New Orleans.

'X' mark in Bywater, New Orleans with Tibetan prayer flags, 2009. Photograph by Dorothy Moye (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

‘X’ mark in Bywater, New Orleans with Tibetan prayer flags, 2009. Photograph by Dorothy Moye (http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/x-codes-post-katrina-postscript)

Patina straddles the space (and time) between construction and ruin. It is always an ambivalent form of materiality because any attempt to stabilise its meaning effaces the essential nature of patina as process. Therefore, the meaning of patina lies in its instability; as with ruins, patina represents a fragment that suggests the meaning of the whole (as in the case of New Orleans’s x-marked buildings). The latter suggests a way out of the condemnation of patina as a superficial form of materiality. Patina, whatever form it takes, has the potential to deepen the meaning of surface as surface. The examples in New Orleans also suggest (contrary to patina’s detractors) that intentionality is key to patina’s critical visuality. Perhaps it’s not the aestheticising of surface per se that is at issue but what we choose to do with that aestheticising. In the case of Katrina patina, it is clear that the material surface has the capacity to expand the field of architectural meaning, to hold together contradictions, to manifest historical depth, and to contribute to the ongoing work of remembrance and healing.

 





Accelerated ruins: the aesthetics of demolition

4 10 2013
Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

When the BBC’s New Broadcasting House (1976) was demolished on Oxford Street in Manchester in October 2012, thousands of passers-by witnessed the violent death of a large building. Over the course of a few weeks, the building was transformed from ruin to rubble, and thence into just one more unimaginative (yet ubiquitous) Manchester car park. Demolition is perhaps the most commonplace form of what Marshall Berman has termed ‘urbicide’, that is, the deliberate destruction of the built environment of cities. And yet it’s certainly the most ignored: buildings come and go, their unmourned deaths usually heralded by long periods of decline, marked by the failure to find new uses for obviously defunct structures.

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Deliberately contemplating buildings undergoing demolition is a transgressive form of looking. Seeing a building being killed is a discomforting, even shocking experience. Buildings – even long-empty ones – are essentially anthropomorphic structures, designed to be lived in and to be shared spaces of existence. Gaze at a building being demolished long enough and you begin to feel the pain of that death: its broken walls, gaping windows, and twisted metalwork eliciting a kind of bodily sympathy in the viewer. The violence of demolition also contrasts with the serenity of the ruin. Where, with the ruin, nature is allowed to re-establish her former claims to the building, producing (at least for a time) a peaceful sense of equilibrium, the building undergoing demolition is violently annihilated by the very tools that raised it up in the first place. No wonder that most demolitions are shielded from public view behind makeshift screens.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Representations of demolition are thus transgressive in that they both expose and forestall the violence of architectural annihilation. On the one hand, photographs articulate the half-demolished building as somehow still existent, even at the moment of its death – the architectural equivalent of a coroner’s report perhaps; on the other, the exposure of the building’s insides during demolition produce revelatory views of architecture – that is, glimpses of the otherwise invisible ‘soft’ interiors (perhaps most powerfully represented in Rachel Whiteread’s spectral sculpture House (1993)).

Rachel Whiteread, 'House' (1993)

Rachel Whiteread, ‘House’ (1993)

'Demolition of Hungerford Market', Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

‘Demolition of Hungerford Market’, Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

Demolition also suggests new kinds of urban aesthetics, given widespread expression in nineteenth-century London when modernisation produced unprecedented scenes of urban ruination. So, when the Hungerford Market near the Strand was demolished in 1862 to make way for the Charing Cross Railway Station (1864), the Illustrated London News found in the resulting scene of destruction a powerful new aesthetic of modernity: a vast, dark absence flanked by houses on the brink of destruction, and the shadow lines of staircases, ceilings and floors imprinted, like Whiteread’s House, on their remaining walls. For the Illustrated London News such destruction produced a great deal of visual interest, in effect a new form of urban picturesque; yet in representing such a scene at all, the newspaper also exposed the urbicide that is common to all forms of modernisation. Yet, as Lynda Nead has argued, the illustration is also a permanent representation of the archaeology of modernity, revealing that the latter is always haunted by the spectral presence of the past, no matter how quickly it tries to obliterate it with the promise of the new.





Love at last sight: Mayfield railway station, Manchester

24 07 2013

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Barely a stone’s throw from Manchester’s bustling transport hub that is Piccadilly station lies the latter’s ghostly doppleganger: the disused Mayfield railway station. Opened in 1910 by the London & North Western Railway Company, this gigantic building operated as a relief-station for the overcrowded Piccadilly next door. In line with Manchester’s industrial decline, Mayfield was closed to passengers in 1960 and permanently shut down in 1968. After years of abandonment and numerous proposals for redevelopment, work began on dismantling the enormous structure in February 2013.

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Yet, for two weeks in July, Mayfield was reopened for use as an arts venue for the Manchester International Festival hosting, in its cavernous spaces, a series of events: Massive Attack soundtracked a film by Adam Curtis; Eszter Salamon performed dance; and Tino Sehgal choreographed an installation. Sehgal’s work was located in a pitch-dark chamber at the back of the station: a disconcerting and immersive piece featuring monologues decrying consumerism and shamanistic dances that circled an audience blinded by the darkness.

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However, for me, the main attraction was the station itself: a vast series of brick-vaulted chambers supported on dozens of steel columns embedded in concrete bases. Long a popular space for illicit exploration, for two short weeks Mayfield opened its arms freely to all. With uncharacteristic summer heat outside, the interior of the station became a cool sanctuary, the sunlight filtered by blinds and seeping through numerous cracks in doorways and windows. Here, the otherwise brutal forms of functionalism unbound had the effect of creating a temporal displacement: was I, like W. G. Sebald in the ruins of Orford Ness, exploring the remains of some long-distant civilisation, the strange forms of the air vents and endless brick vaults leftovers of a enigmatic primitive culture? Or was I in the far-distant future witnessing the ruins of our own culture after its extinction after an unknown catastrophe? Sehgal’s performance seemed to enhance this sense of being catapulted into a different temporal realm – its whooping sounds and enigmatic statements offering something that seemed at once both primitive and futuristic.

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Such displacements are a common result of experiencing large-scale ruins. The dark spaces of Mayfield – cavernous chambers permanently shrouded in shadows – were more like vast underground tombs than industrial leftovers, exuding both threat and tranquility. Such feelings were heightened by the knowledge that this space will soon be erased, its spaces confined to the dark recesses of memory. Truly, this was love at last sight.

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Ruin gazing: dead cities and the imagination of disaster

14 06 2013
A New Zealander gazes at the ruins of Victorian London (in 'London: A Pilgrimage', 1874)

A future visitor beholds the ruins of Victorian London in ‘London: A Pilgrimage’, 1874

I’m currently embarking on a new research project that has grown out of recent work on the legacy of Chernobyl and its ruins, particularly the abandoned town of Pripyat, which I visited in October 2007 and which has subsequently formed the subject of many talks and articles. Here’s a summary of the project I envisage…

Pripyat from the roof of the former Polissya Hotel

Pripyat from the roof of the former Polissya Hotel

Perhaps more than any other Soviet ruin, Pripyat – the ghost town near Chernobyl abandoned after the accident in 1986 – has come to embody, for the capitalist West, all the failures of state socialism in comparison with the successes of the former: a total lack of transparency; technological ineptitude; and a callous indifference to the human and environmental consequences of industrial and social exploitation. Yet, in recent years, Pripyat has been commandeered by that same West in the service of postmodern culture: as a backdrop for fantasy computer games such as Call of Pripyat (2009) and as a site of horror in the film Chernobyl Diaries (2012). What does this shift tell us about the legacy of urban ruins like Pripyat, both for the West and for those who were directly affected by their ruination? Has the collapse of communism really resulted in the uncontested rule of global capitalism, or are there still spaces that might provide alternatives to this hegemony?

Still from the computer game 'Call of Pripyat' (2007)

Still from the computer game ‘Call of Pripyat’ (2009)

Publicity poster for the film 'Chernobyl Diaries' (2012)

Publicity poster for the film ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ (2012)

This research proposes to address these questions by focusing on the wider significance of urban ruins in an age of global capitalism. It will concentrate on case studies of four pairings of socialist/capitalist sites of urban ruin that resulted from different destructive forces: ethnic conflict (Agdam, Azerbaijan and Varosha, Cyprus); technological failure (Fukushima, Japan and Pripyat, Ukraine); deferred utopianism (Keelung, Taiwan and the Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan); economic decline/surplus (Detroit and contemporary empty cities in China, for example Ordos). Relating an experiential awareness of these urban ruins with a concurrent host of fictional counterparts in visual culture (particularly in film), this research will interrogate the relationship between the real and the imagined in terms of how large-urban ruins are perceived, both from the perspective of those who were directly affected by such ruination and from those who seek to re-appropriate these ruins in other contexts, whether in post-state socialist or capitalist contexts.

Varosha in Cyprus, abandoned in 1974

Varosha in Cyprus, abandoned in 1974

Google Maps street view of Fukushima town, Japan

Google Maps street view of Fukushima town, Japan

The Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan

The Oil Rocks near Baku, Azerbaijan

The result will be to create a dialogue between state socialist, capitalist urban ruins and the wider (global), culturally-prescient theme of the imagination of disaster. If urban ruins have been commandeered by some, others – particular those who were directly affected by their abandonment – still view them as a kind of representation void: petrified places that speak only of loss, of a helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces defying comprehension. In the grip of our own apocalyptic imaginings – brought on by the prospect of unsustainable urban growth, unmanageable environmental threats, increasingly extreme social segregation, and wars and terrorists that deliberately target urban areas – if we are to represent the death of cities, what can we learn from urban sites that have already died? This research will use its analysis of state socialist and capitalist urban ruins to open up an emancipatory space that, following Slavoj Žižek, accepts the universal inevitability of ruin in order to break its ideological grasp and thus to suggest liberating alternatives.

Empty quarter in the city of Ordos, China

Empty quarter in the city of Ordos, China





Rest in distinction: the allure of catacombs

2 05 2013
Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

In an earlier post, I explored the origins of London’s catacombs and one group in particular: those at Kensal Green Cemetery. In November last year, as a favour for a talk I gave at West Norwood, I was guided around the catacombs in this South London Cemetery. Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: those at West Norwood being installed in 1840.

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

The word ‘catacomb’ literally means ‘among the tombs’ and the latter clearly expresses why these spaces are so different from conventional burial sites. In a catacomb the dead are directly accessible: at West Norwood, coffins line the recesses along the brick tunnels (1), many now in an advanced state of decay. In former times, relatives of the deceased would visit these spaces and commune with their loved ones with a sense of intimacy not possible with a conventional grave. Catacombs are spaces where one can literally be among the dead, temporarily sealed off from the life above ground in a private and exclusive space. Yet, as with all cemeteries, there is also a community of the dead here; unless one is important enough to have an isolated mausoleum, places of rest are invariably shared. Certainly, catacombs are no place to be alone; when my guide took me into a tiny, pitch-dark recess filled with the tiny coffins of children, I felt a powerful sense of horror at being almost consumed by the dead, shuddering at the thought of such overwhelming losses.

3. Former grave-digger's spade, West Norwood catacombs

3. Former grave-digger’s spade, West Norwood catacombs

4. Catacombs under St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

4. Catacombs under St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Despite their communality, the catacombs at West Norwood, just like their counterparts in other London cemeteries, nevertheless express the desire for continued social distinction after death. Purchasing a catacomb was a sign of high social (and financial) standing, the signs of which are most clearly expressed in the plaques that mark the individual spaces (2), a forlorn grave-digger’s spade the only reminder of the social ‘other’ that always haunts such a desire for exclusivity (3). In even more exclusive catacombs, like those beneath St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (4), this desire for social distinction generated both horror and absurdity. Once the burial site of nobles, in the eighteenth century these spaces became the general catacomb for all of Vienna’s residents. During the time of the Habsburg Empire, the catacombs were once again transformed into an exclusive space – a pristine stone-arched vault – while the rest of the bones were moved to an ignominious pit. Today, in these catacombs, the pickled organs of the former Habsburg rulers are preserved in copper urns, their mummified bodies preserved in two other sites in Vienna. It is as if this level of social distinction has literally torn apart the bodies, one burial site being inadequate to preserve the idea of an eternal kingdom.

5. Chambers in the St Paul's Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

5. Chambers in the St Paul’s Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

7. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul's Catacombs, Malta

6. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul’s Catacombs, Malta

Yet, in their early incarnations, catacombs were once spaces of inclusivity. The island of Malta is riddled with ancient underground spaces, including the St. Paul’s catacombs, outside the former Greek city of Melite (now Mdina). In a series of deep rectangular shafts flanked by chambers (5), one can still see the evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials. Originating in pre-Roman Phoenician culture, these spaces were taken over by the successive religious groups that lived side-by-side in Malta over the centuries. In these catacombs, Jewish mourners might perform ritualised acts of memorialisation next to Pagan rites of sacrifice, while a faded Christian wall painting displays the same act embodied in another form (6). Walking and crouching in these spaces, their womb-like enclosures and soft, warmly-lit walls (7) seem to speak of the possibility of social unity rather than heightened division, where together we can face the inevitable erasure of distinction that will come to us all.

7. St Paul's Catacombs

7. St Paul’s Catacombs





Ghosts in the city: the ruined churches of Famagusta

18 04 2013
Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Remains of the Armenian church, Famagusta

Famagusta (Gazimagusa) is a medieval walled city in north Cyprus that has changed hands many times in its long history: once a Crusader stronghold; then a Venetian fortified city, prized by Leonardo da Vinci; then, after an epic siege in 1571, an Ottoman outpost; then, from 1918 to 1960, a British colony; today, the southernmost city of Turkish-controlled north Cyprus, who seized control in 1974. From its immense walls – as impressive as any built by the Venetians – one sees the signs of Turkish militarisation everywhere: immense battleships in the industrial port; barracks sealed off by barbed wire; and, in the distance, the ghost city of Varosha, the modern formerly-Greek suburb that’s now a sealed-off forbidden zone.

It has been said that Famagusta once had 365 churches, each one paid for by a man or woman intent on buying their place in heaven. That’s one church for every day of the year – an extraordinary number perhaps explained by the large number of sects that used to coexist in the city: Latin and Greek, Maronite, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Carmelite, Nestorian, Jacobite, Abyssinian and Jewish. From the meagre 17 churches that still remain today, it’s hard to imagine the overwhelming spectacle of such a large number of churches crammed together in such a small area; yet, in some way, the remainders – most in ruins – still testify to the ghostly presences of all those other churches that have been erased from the cityscape.

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

1. West front of St Nicholas Cathedral/Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque

St Nicholas Cathedral (1, now the Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque) is still the architectural focus of the city, its imposing western facade, built in the 14th century likened to Reims Cathedral in France. Now, the former cathedral is a mosque, its incongruous minaret added by the Ottomans, the interior whitewashed, the altar supplanted by the minbar and mihrab, and the floor covered in soft carpets. Hearing the Azan emanating from this former church is both disorientating and strangely moving, jolting you into a place between the two hard-faced religions that still seem to face each other off in today’s divided Cyprus.

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

2. Interior of the Nestorian church through a crack in the door

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

3. Faded frescoes, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

4. Weathered limestone, church of St George of the Greeks

The other 16 churches are scattered inside the city walls, most of them in various stages of ruin; those that are not, firmly locked to curious visitors. Peering through a crack in the door of the 14th-century Nestorian Church (the most intact of the smaller churches), one sees an interior untouched by time, its pews, lectern and screen seemingly awaiting the next group of worshippers that may never come (2). In other more ruinous churches one can wander at will, the insides of these buildings now turned outwards: faded frescoes exposing the saints to the elements (3); homilies only offered by the pigeons who inhabit the vaults; the soft brown limestone eaten away into fantastical miniature worlds of coral-like formations (4).

5. Church of Ayios Nicholas

5. Church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

6. Dome of the church of Ayios Nicolas

At the southern end of the city are the two perfectly formed churches of Ayios Nicolas and Ayia Zoni: small, rustic buildings with their pleasing geometries of square, octagon and circle (5 & 6). Sitting here sketching on a windy afternoon, I was drawn, like many ruin gazers, into a reflective mode of perception. Unlike modern ruins, which sting us with their raw violence, old ruins comfort because they inhabit a different temporal realm from us. Long ago – a time which I can only imagine and not experience – these were churches; yet, they still remain as ghost churches, bearing witness in their materiality to distant traumas that remain in soft material traces. It’s as if they say to us: if you’re lucky, you might age as beautifully as we do. So, perhaps my own traumas, destructive as they are, will not end in my erasure but rather in my slow, but nevertheless inevitable, transfiguration into a silent witness.





Into the Forbidden Zone: Varosha, ghost city of Cyprus

30 03 2013
Varosha from Palm Beach

Varosha from Palm Beach

In 1974, the glamorous resort town of Varosha in Cyprus was abandoned by its 35,000 mainly Greek Cypriot residents after the Turkish army invaded the northern part of the island. Now fenced off and forlorn, Varosha has never been resettled, being set aside by the Turkish authorities as a possible bargaining chip should negotiations even begin with the south. Today, nearly 40 years after being abandoned, Varosha remains one of the largest modern ruins in existence, on a par with Pripyat in the contaminated zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine.

2. Fence around Varosha

1. Fence around Varosha

As part of the militarised zone between northern and southern Cyprus, Varosha is effectively off limits to all but official visitors: a ‘Forbidden Zone’ as the countless signs along the fence proclaim (1). The fence itself is a formidable barrier to any would-be explorers: a mixture of barbed wire, corrugated iron, Prickly Pear cacti, oil drums and signs warning off intruders. Yet, away from the obvious observation towers on the town’s seafront, where lone guards sit or stand in abject boredom or blow whistles at anyone trying to take photographs, there’s surprisingly little security: gaps have opened in the fence and it’s easy to slip in and out unnoticed.

2. View over Varosha from a former apartment building

2. View over Varosha from a former apartment building

3. Vegetation in Irakleus Street, Varosha

3. Vegetation in Irakleus Street, Varosha

4. Former workshop in Ermou Street, Varosha

4. Former workshop in Ermou Street, Varosha

5. Ermou Street, Varosha

5. Ermou Street, Varosha

So, my two visits inside the abandoned town were not fraught with danger; neither did they involve anything more physical than slipping through a large hole in the fence. Yet, once inside everything is different. You are at once an illegal trespasser in danger of arrest or even of being shot; an explorer of unimaginable ruins stretching as far as the eye can see (2); and the ‘Last Man’ (or woman) of Mary Shelley’s invention (and countless fictional end-of-the-world stories since). Almost 40 years without human intervention have resulted in the streets becoming overgrown with lush vegetation (3); former shops and bars disintegrating in the hot sunshine (4); signs becoming simply vacant spaces in the sky (5); and former apartments turning into the homes of pigeons and crows (6). Everyday spaces and objects left by fleeing residents now take on an uncanny or surreal quality: omnipresent peeling paint creates a new kind of interior aesthetic (7); broken chairs and rusted fridges and stoves become reminders of the accelerated redundancy of modern objects (8); a stripped motorcycle metamorphoses into a human skeleton (9); and a strange animal-like sculpture creates a mysterious presence in an empty room (10) (is it a post-abadonment intervention or just an unsalvageable leftover?)

6. Line of pigeon droppings in a former house in Varosha

6. Line of pigeon droppings in a former house in Varosha

7. Peeling paint in a former house in Varosha

7. Peeling paint in a former house in Varosha

8. Rusting 1970s fridge on a rooftop terrace in Varosha

8. Rusting 1970s fridge on a rooftop terrace in Varosha

9. Rusting bicycle

9. Dismembered motorcycle

10. Mysterious object in a room in Varosha

10. Mysterious object in a room in Varosha

Ruins on this city-like kind of scale always invite an immersive form of meditation. Sit still for a while and you hear the sounds of nature reclaiming the human environment: the cooing of pigeons, the cawing of crows, the wind rustling old curtains and rattling decrepit doors and windows (11). This, together with the obvious abolishment of what was once private property, is the emancipatory power of urban ruins: they calm, liberate and offer visions of different kinds of futures freed from the constraints of the normative present. However, ruins on this kind of scale are also always deeply unsettling, especially if we think of the violence that made them what they are. Embedded somewhere in the present peaceful spaces are traces of the tens of thousands of stories of violent rupture and loss that accompanied the abandonment of Varosha. All these silent spaces were once imbued with human qualities, whether those of the home, workplace or places of play. It is these stories that are waiting to be reconnnected with the spaces as they are now.

11. View over Varosha (video)

More of my photographs of Varosha can be found here.








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