Interviews

RUIN IMAGERY AND THE CULTURAL WORK IT PERFORMS: IN CONVERSATION WITH DORA APEL

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Dora Apel is a professor and the W. Hawkins Ferry Endowed Chair in Modern and Contemporary Art history at Wayne State University, and a leading scholar on ruin imagery. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Imagery of Lynching, War Culture and the Contest of Images, and most recently, Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline, and has written for publications including Jacobin, Dissent, and Art Bulletin among others.

You’ve written quite a bit about the ways in which ruin imagery is used as a political and ideological tool, I was curious to what degree you believe the romanticization of Detroit’s’ ruins by those outside the city (often suburbanites who are the descendants of white flight) has had in the gentrification of Detroit in recent years, especially now that we’re seeing icons of ruin imagery like Michigan Central Station becoming icons of redevelopment.

 You also discuss the ways in which the debate over ruin imagery often is drawn along the lines of those who are from the city and those who are not and it seems to tie into questions of cultural appropriation such as “who has the right to tell whose story?” I was wondering if you could elaborate on your thoughts as to who should have the authority to be producing and framing the imagery of post-industrial ruins? What are the responsibilities of the artist/photographer? Are these responsibilities contingent on race, class, etc.?

Lastly, I read a recent interview you did in which you had a quote I really liked: “representation is a way of distancing yourself and producing a sense of mental mastery and safety.” I was hoping you could maybe expand a bit the ways in which image making (specifically landscape imagery) acts as a way for individuals to assert their dominion over a particular space, and maybe what you believe the broader implications of this are.

I’ll start by talking about the issue of cultural appropriation because this is something of a raging issue, as we saw recently with the controversy at the Whitney Museum over a painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz, a white artist. When it comes to taking photos of the ruins, I believe everyone “has the right” because the ruins are too important  for understanding the nature of the historic moment in which we live and the failure of capitalism to support the population and the environment. The ruins are too symptomatic of our times for this issue to belong only to those who live among the ruins, just as the issue of race and racial violence in the United States should concern the entire population.

While I can understand the resentment of those who live among the ruins at the past invasion of photographers, their anger would be better directed at the agents of decline responsible for those ruins: the state, the corporations, and billionaire entrepreneurs. The problem with the notion of “insiders” and “outsiders” is that these categories become very slippery anyway (how long do you have to live in the city to be an “insider”? A year? Ten years? Thirty years?). The question itself–“who has the right”–is not really a useful question. We would know little of major events and phenomena in history if “outsiders” didn’t travel to places around the world to record those events, whether in visual or literary terms.

Moreover, cities cannot (and should not) be privatized. It is more useful to decipher the cultural and symbolic work those images do, and consider the fascination that draws so many–most of us–to the ruins. I believe what draws us is the fear of decline and collapse. Aestheticizing the ruins is a way to ameliorate that anxiety and gain pleasure from the ruins. This is what I mean by mental mastery. It is mastery over the fear and anxiety of decline that ruins generate, rather than mastery over the space itself, and we gain that mastery and a sense of safety through the distancing of aesthetic representation.

An irony is that there are those who fall in love with the beauty of decay and argue that there should be no restoration or rebuilding. Certainly, there are arguments to be made for maintaining significant historic ruins at times, but the larger question is how to revive a city- really, many cities across the nation. This won’t be accomplished by merely sweeping away ruins either, but through jobs, rebuilt infrastructure and transportation, affordable housing, access to health care and education, and to do this for the majority population, not just for a tiny gentrified area for the affluent that further drives the poorer population out. It will take a different kind of economic system, one based on true equality.

2 Comments
  1. Sophie 2 days ago
    Reply

    Thank you! There is no culture without appropriation, and let’s stop fighting over crumbs and start claiming the bakery!

  2. Valerie Parks 2 days ago
    Reply

    A clear and beautiful analysis of what we see and feel as we might examine place. Thanks, Dora. This is a must read.

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