While abandoned buildings have long been a playground for all manner of folk, artists perhaps have the best opportunity to make a lasting impression. In recent years, graffiti has been the most popular means of this and in some respects exists as the most natural fit when considering the current incarnation of the art form’s origins in 1970s New York City. The guerrilla aspect of graffiti has also led to its dismissal as vandalism by many, something that has only encouraged artists to keep using urban areas as their canvas, through the lack of an alternative.
That said there are examples around the globe of buildings that would have otherwise been demolished or condemned if it wasn’t for the graffiti driven movements that have come to define them. 5 Pointz in Long Island City, a warehouse covered head to toe in graffiti is located a block from MOMA’s PS1 gallery and is now considered an integral part of the area’s art scene. The Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin and Les Frigos in Paris are further examples of grand yet sure-to-be condemned buildings, whose existence at least for the time being is secured by the artists’ occupation.
Jeffrey Eugenides opened our second issue Detroit with a piece ‘Against Ruin-Porn’ in which he expresses a distaste for the trend of outsiders revelling in the ‘beauty’ of his city’s demise. The re-appropriation (as opposed to exploitation) of abandoned buildings is far from limited to graffiti artists however, as some novel projects in recent years have shown. Indeed, while Marchand and Meffre’s coffee table book approach to the vast abandoned areas of Detroit offers little for residents, community driven initiatives like the Heidelberg Project are a place for those who live in the city to comment on decline.
Dutch artist Marjan Teeuwen (image above) engages with the decay in abandoned buildings on a different level altogether, meticulously arranging spaces that are as eerie as they are mesmerising. Sometimes studio based, often in the buildings themselves Teeuwen creates astonishing areas which play with established notions of architecture, cutting holes in walls and floors. Her shell like creations feature undulating piles of debris arranged in a manner that appear as if to be an optical illusion as the abandoned space becomes the subject rather than the canvas.
‘Rainbow Village’ | photos by Steven R. Barringer ©
While an influx of artists laying claim to Kunsthaus Tacheles and Les Frigos served to secure the buildings’ future and essentially protect the work both on and within them, this is by no means a formality. A deal of uncertainty surrounds the phenomenally colourful ‘Rainbow Village’ in Taichung, Taiwan a project by an 86-year-old veteran from Hong Kong. Huang Yung-fu lives in the community which was built for Nationalist soldiers in the 1940s and 50s and upon hearing that plans to redevelop the area were imminent; his work which had caught the attention of local university students went viral. A petition to save the village convinced the Mayor of Taichung to pledge not to demolish the area in 2010 and it has since cemented itself as a tourist attraction. That said, there are varying reports on the future of the village and with no official line on the matter, a change of Mayor alone could spell the end of Huang’s cartoon-like oasis.
On a personal note, I experienced an example of the temporal nature of these projects during my time in New Orleans in October 2010. Upon visiting the St. Roch area of the city with a local, I saw what was left of ‘Safehouse’, Mel Chin’s striking installation in a house abandoned post-Katrina. What made the sight of it all the more bizarre is that less than two years after its inception, all that remained was a huge circular void in the front of the house where Chin’s bank-style vault had once been. To see a project become engulfed by the neglection of the area which it had looked to counteract was an odd sensation indeed.
Mel Chin’s Safehouse, 2461 North Villere Street, New Orleans in 2008 and 2010
But then perhaps this is the point, that when engaging with abandoned buildings and neighbourhoods in an irreversible state of decline (unlike Kunsthausand and Les Frigos) the last thing that residents want is a permanent memorial to what was before.
By Alec Dudson