Arthur Drooker, American Ruins (New York and London: Merrell, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1 8589 4406. £25. 144 pp.
Kit Fryatt (Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University)
In the last two months I’ve seen New York deserted and in ruins three times. It happens to London and Tokyo quite a lot too, and incidentally to Washington D.C. and other American conurbations. The cities of mainland Europe and of Asia (apart from the Japanese ones) seem less vulnerable, but since I see mainly English-language films, I can’t say for sure. I watch disaster movies because I like seeing things smashed up. I think I always have. One of my first memories is of pointing to a sea cave near the island of Rhodes and saying to my mother, “Godzilla lives there” – I was two years old. I was eight when I saw a video of Planet of the Apes, whose half-buried Statue of Liberty is described by Christopher Woodward in the essay which accompanies Arthur Drooker’s photographs of American ruins as “the most striking single image of ruin in recent decades.” At the time I lived in Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Turkey, where weekend excursions and school trips were often visits to archaeological sites. I was enchanted by a modern icon in desolation. The resonance of the image for a Cold War audience eluded me then, but its perverse delightfulness has in any case survived the threat of nuclear war between superpowers. The poster for 2008’s surprise cinematic success, Cloverfield, which featured a headless Liberty, traded at least as much on the Planet of the Apes image as on its edgier and less famous inspiration, the publicity for the 1981 John Carpenter film Escape from New York.
Of course, we’ve been taking pleasure in ruins for a lot longer than film-makers have been creating mock-ups of cities to be ravaged by monsters and microbes. If the author of Lamentations, writing in the sixth century BC, did not know such pleasure, then the committee who two thousand years later translated his words as, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow!” almost certainly did. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, rumination over ruins became a mass pursuit, at least among those rich enough to afford a Grand Tour. Some Romantic writers exempted America from consideration by students of what Nicholas Biddle – an early American practitioner – called “the melancholy but pleasing philosophy of ruins”. Goethe addressed the continent conversationally, in a poem quoted here by Woodward, “America, you have it better / Than our old continent”. Americans were nonetheless fascinated by ruins. Thomas Cole’s series of five paintings, The Course of Empire (1836) charts the progress of a civilisation from wilderness at dawn to post-imperial decay at sunset. Cole saw his paintings as a moral warning to the sixty-year-old republic not to abandon the values of its founders, but their interest now is the curious inevitability with which each programmatic stage of development follows the last. “Destruction” and “Desolation” (the titles of the fourth and fifth paintings) are not to be averted, so we are given implicit permission to luxuriate in them.
That remains the problem with the philosophy of ruins: not that it is melancholy, but its melancholy is pleasing. Woodward asks an oft-repeated question: “The buildings in this book are ruins because of fire and poverty, earthquakes and war. Why do we enjoy looking at them?” but, as in his book In Ruins (2002), his answers – where he offers them at all – are much too sanguine. He even indulges in that greatest of consolatory fallacies, that natural decay represents a “triumph” over the tyrannies that order monuments built and the violence that destroys them. Woodward’s question is easy to answer. We enjoy looking at ruins because we are protected from the circumstances which caused them and have a streak of infantile sadism which takes pleasure in destruction. The real question is, “how can we enjoy looking at them and still think ourselves virtuous?”
By definition, the sublime happens not to the self but to the other: when it happens to us, we call it pain or danger. It is predicated on the safety of the observers and their non-intervention in others’ suffering. There is a low complacency in our taste for the sublime, a complacency as creeping and cowardly as sublime rhetoric is high and tempestuous. It would be glib to propose a correlation between Hollywood’s enthusiasm for disaster movies and the willingness of the American government to order the destruction of the cities of other sovereign nations, but there is something decadent in the ease with which we imagine New York desolated, and treat the spectacle as entertainment, knowing how unlikely it is to happen. There’s no thrill in imagining the abandoned ruins of Baghdad.
Woodward’s essay is nonetheless informative, written in an elegantly anecdotal manner. I was interested to learn of the Virginian farmers who in the 1930s were forcibly relocated to make way for the Shenandoah National Park. Described by government planners almost as an uncontacted tribe, ignorant alike of religion and civic virtue, “cut off from the current of American life”, their supposed underdevelopment was used to justify their displacement. Excavation of their former homes has since turned up a Japanese tea set and a toy ray-gun, rebukes to both our dismissal of and desire for the primitive. Woodward doesn’t, however, address what’s most interesting and disquieting about our attraction to wreckage: the murderous, Godzilla-obsessed toddler who is part of every ruin-bibber.
Arthur Drooker’s photographs are shot in an infrared digital format which creates images of uncanny clarity, drenched in dreamy light. We’re shown things that the naked human eye can’t see, and as an odd concomitant, Drooker has excluded the human figure from his compositions. His subjects range historically from cave-dwellings built by the inhabitants of Arizona in the fourth century AD to the ruins of Alcatraz, and are geographically spread from Roosevelt Island to Hawaii. Understandably, however, most of the ruins date from the nineteenth century and are to be found in the contested and haunted southern states. The accompanying commentary is mostly factual and objective, though occasionally euphemistic. We learn for example that the sturdy mining town of Rhyolite “had an extensive red light district that drew women from as far away as San Francisco,” or that in seventeenth-century New Mexico “the need for missions diminished on account of the effects of European diseases, assimilation, intermarriage, and environmental pressures.”
The bland prose intensifies the uncanny stillness and emptiness of Drooker’s images. Certain words, phrases and syntactical constructions recur – the reader notices how many edifices have been destroyed by “fires of mysterious origin,” that a number of sites are undergoing “redevelopment” into leisure facilities, and that ruins are often described as “stabilized.” The overall effect of American Ruins is one of stabilisation, rather than stability – looking at these photographs, the viewer feels how temporary and fragile is the stasis of ruins; how the dynamism of decay might reassert itself at any moment. Perhaps, standing among America’s debris, we are never wholly safe.