Within contemporary culture, there is a growing obsession with sites of abandonment and decay. Previously inhabited and everyday places, emptied out by natural or man-made disasters have become tourist destinations, and vacated theatres, hospitals and office blocks provide locations for the increasingly popular pastime of urban exploration. Aestheticised images of derelict buildings in devastated cities, such as Christchurch, Detroit and Chernobyl, litter the internet, and the popularity of zombie films has led to a proliferation of post-apocalyptic landscapes on our screens. These images of wrecked, crumbling places, slowly returning to nature both terrify and thrill us, because they present the almost unimaginable prospect of a humanless world.
The exhibition at Vapaan Taiteen Tila in Helsinki, by Victoria Lucas and Flis Holland, features certain characteristics of this cultural phenomenon, which is often called ‘ruin porn’. A conversation between two separate and autonomous bodies of work, it confronts us with aspects of memory and loss, which speak to deep-rooted fears of oblivion. Lucas’s films and photographs present sites of intense human activity as silent, empty places, where graffiti, litter, handwritten notes and other mundane indications of life amplify an unsettling sense of absence. Holland’s intimate installations, meanwhile, project the viewer into an ostensibly uninhabited domestic space. Lacking the ephemera of daily life and displaying signs of violence, the setting is at once disconcerting and familiar – an oddly clinical crime scene in a half-remembered place.
However, unlike ruin porn, which invites the voyeuristic consumption of disaster and decay, the installations of Lucas and Holland deny the pleasure of passive engagement. Holland’s claustrophobic images tantalise with their refusal to reveal the wider scene; whilst the enforced choreography of the audience, who must walk, stoop, bend and squint to experience the work, reflects the viewing gaze back upon the spectator. In Lucas’s film After, the hypnotic exploration of an empty market hall is disrupted by an unexpected human presence. As the solitary figure slides slowly into view, our role in the artwork becomes apparent. Not simply detached viewers, we are the beholders of a place, called to bear witness to the rhythms of the lives which have shaped it over time.
The geographer Edward Casey describes bodies and places as ‘connatural terms’, which ‘interanimate each other’1. Places are the product of embodied experiences which, in turn, are engendered in place. In After, the interdependence of people and place is poetically explicit. Chairs, tables, sweeping brushes and shrouded market stalls wait dumbly, like theatre props, for the daily ‘place ballets’2 of shoppers and stallholders to resurrect the market. At the same time, proprietorial placards – marking ‘Angie’s good grub’, ‘Sharon’s café’, ‘Jenny’s fabrics’ and ‘Billy’s Frillys’ – commemorate the lives which are enacted in this space, imbued with its sounds, smells, tastes and flows, and patterned with its textures.
Much more than the backdrops to our lives, places are central to our experience of the world and our relationships with other people. Lucy Lippard describes place as ‘latitudinal and longitudinal in the map of a person’s life…a layered location replete with human histories’, which has ‘width as well as depth’3. When we leave a place, we leave traces of ourselves, and carry something of it with us for the remainder of our lives. The disquieting and dreamlike scenes in Holland’s installation speak of this entanglement of memory and place. Fragmented visions of a recognisable and reconstructed scene generate a darkly nostalgic sense of place, which summons other ghostly landscapes from the edges of our minds.
The artworks of Lucas and Holland do not fetishise human absence, but rather interrogate the entwined relationships between people and a place. Michel de Certeau tells us that there is nowhere ‘that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there is silence’, and ‘haunted places are the only ones people can live in’4. By reconstructing and re-presenting particular moments and events, the artworks conjure up the apparitions of a site, and act as thresholds between the layers of its many presents, pasts and futures. Unofficial monuments to unassuming lives, they emphasise the significance of individual actions, and remind us that as humans we are, eternally, ‘in place’.
Text written by Elaine Speight
Curator of In Certain Places
1 Edward Casey, 1997, ‘How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena’, in Senses of Place, eds. S. Feld & K Basso, School of American Research Press.
2 See David Seamon, 1980, ‘Body-subject, time-space routines, and place- ballets’, in The Human Experience of Space and Place, eds. A. Buttimer & D. Seamon, St. Martin’s Press, New York.
3 Lucy Lippard, 1997, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered World, The New Press, New York.
4 Michel de Certeau, 1984, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkeley.