Recently I came across the term “ruin porn” in a New York Times article. I know this kind of non-erotic but addictive pleasure: the fascination with decrepit buildings and ugly landscapes. In fact, when I was a little boy, I loved the sign of automobile “junk yards” along highways as my parents and I traveled. (My parents dashed my fascination by reminding me that each wrecked car represents someone injured or killed.) I’ve also recently discovered the concept of urban exploration, or Urbex, the practice of discovering and documenting places that are in decline or abandoned, or unseen because they’re part of the urban infrastructure.
I’ve written about abandoned landscapes, for instance, here: https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/sav-mart-memories/ The other day, as my daughter and I browsed the local Art Mart, I discovered among the book selection a new book by Tong Lam, Abandoned Futures (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013).
Lam is a visual artist and historian who, according to his website, uses cinematographic and photographic techniques “to explore and document industrial and postindustrial ruins from around the world, as well as China’s hysterical transformation.” He researches “modern and contemporary China and East Asia, technoscience, media and spectacle, ruins, colonialism, and nationalism.” He is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. His websites are http://photography.tonglam.com/#/home?i=279 and http://www.tonglam.com/home.html
This interesting book captures a variety of abandoned and decaying landcapes. As the blurb on Amazon indicates, the despairing and apocalyptic images do contain hope, in the way trees and other flora return to the human-built scenes and begin to thrive.
I hate to use the word “haunting,” which seems overused, but it’s the word that comes to mind as I leaf through Lam’s photographs: futuristic UFO-shaped vacation homes in Taiwan, a factory, the abandoned island-city Hashima in southern Japan (used in the James Bond movie Skyfall, a “non-place” of thousands of discarded cars and vehicles in the Mojave Desert, buildings in ruined sections of Detroit, an empty carnival, a closed Bible college and seminary in southern Arizona, and others.
Lam’s commentary is important and thought-provoking, and should be taken to heart. For instance, he writes, “in many liberal democracies, government deficits and the retreat of the welfare state have resulted in service cuts and hospital closures…the most curious type of medical ruins are those highly specialized facilities that are suddenly rendered irrelevant as a result of paradigm shifts in medical science.” (The book has no page numbers; this is from chapter 9, “Maximizing Life”). Other kinds of ruins happen because they were made cheaply with no intention of long lives, and so buildings are discarded sometimes before they were completed; consequently, decline happens not over centuries but in a few decades or a few years (chapter 1, “Time Speeds Up”).
“Financial capital may be abstract, but the ruins it created are real. From the Global North to the Global South, the tsunami of financial capitalism sweeps away job security and certainties, destroying cities and lives… it turns out that Capitalism 2.0 has not gotten any smarter” (chapter 8, “Bubbles”).