Absence and Essence

Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)

He isn’t mentioned in this book, but he haunts it like a semiotic spectre at a phantasmic feast. Yes, this is a very Ballardian book and I’m sure J.G. Ballard would have liked it. And perhaps been inspired by it to write one of his haunting stories about abandoned buildings or aircraft, about human artefacts slowly succumbing to nature and the elements and the ineluctable forces of entropy.

But Ballard’s omission isn’t surprising. There’s little room to mention anyone or anything here: apart from a brief foreword by the compiler Mathew (sic) Growcoot, there’s nothing but section headings, photographs and brief captions. I like the absence of words and the abundance of images. Abandoned buildings and artefacts are fertile not only for Ballardianism but also for bullshit. You can imagine what po-mo-ticians would make of the anomic alienation and transliminal alterities on display here.

As it is, the photographs are allowed to speak for themselves: silently, subtly, seductively. There’s everything from fairgrounds and theatres to jails and asylums, from rusting aircraft to sunken ships. The photographs are all variants on the single theme of abandonment, of what happens when bustle and busy-ness turn into quietness and contemplation. And the buildings and other artefacts do seem to be contemplating themselves or their own decay, like a Buddhist monk sinking slowly into deeper and deeper into meditation until he begins to merge into what surrounds him, becoming one with the world. But the power in the photos comes partly from what isn’t there: the human beings who created what nature is now reclaiming. That’s why the graffiti you can see in a few photos spoils the beauty of the abandonment. It’s ugly and intrusive, laying claim to structures that should now belong only to themselves and entropy.

They’re abandoned: human beings should be absent. The ab- of “abandoned” and the ab- of “absence” aren’t actually the same, but it’s appropriate that they seem to be. The ab- of “absence” is from the Latin preposition ab, meaning “from, away”. When a building or machine is abandoned, people have gone away. Something is subtracted and something else takes its place: an eeriness, a melancholy, a murmur of memento mori – “remember that you die”, that all things must pass. That eeriness comes in different flavours with different kinds of abandonment. The section headings run like this: “Abandoned Homes, Abandoned Recreation, Abandoned Rooms, Abandoned Journeys, Abandoned Society, Abandoned Industry”.

The photos of abandoned fairgrounds, theatres and stadiums – “Abandoned Recreation” – are in some ways the most powerful, because the absence is most present there. Crowds of people once filled these places with noise and activity – they laughed, cheered, applauded, had fun. Now paint is peeling off the colourful walls of a “Gym in a derelict school, Arctic circle.” Frost-whitened trees surround a stationary “Ferris Wheel, Chernobyl, Ukraine”. Shadows and slanting sunbeams fill an “Abandoned theatre near Berlin, Germany”.

No-one’s there: the crowds have gone. These places are abandoned to absence. But if the photos in “Abandoned Recreation” are in some ways the most powerful, they’re also in some ways the least powerful. Fairgrounds, gyms and theatres were regularly abandoned even when they were in use: the crowds would come and go, like tides filling a bay. It’s just that one day the crowds went and never came back. The private homes of other sections never had the same noise and activity, but they didn’t fill and empty like fairgrounds and theatres. People were always or almost always there, so their absence now is a stranger and sharper thing. Men, women and children did intimate, ordinary things there, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century. And now the thread is broken: the people are gone. No-one will ever sit in the sagging armchair or play the collapsed piano of a “Living area in industrial site, Austria”. No child will push the wheeled little horse in the “Nursery, Château de Moulbaix, Belgium” or look at the pictures on the walls.

But the sadness isn’t very strong in the nursery, because a nursery isn’t a permanent place. It’s akin to a theatre: abandonment is always natural there, because children grow up and leave. No, the sadness is strongest in places that were built to be in permanent use, like houses. Except that nothing is permanent. A nursery is used for a few years; a house might be used for decades or centuries. But in the end it will pass away, perhaps quickly, if it’s demolished, or slowly, if it’s abandoned. Demolition has its delights too, but abandonment is subtler and slyer. Its power follows a curve, first rising, then falling. The most powerful photos here have the least change in them, because they have been taken when the abandonment is most recent. Dust and shadows have taken over, but everything is still more-or-less intact.

When the abandonment is older and ceilings and floors have collapsed, as in the “Collapsed villa, Italy” and the “Collapsed palace, Italy”, there’s less power in the photographs. Or a different kind of power. Humans have been gone much longer and their absence is less poignant, less powerful. Their ghosts are fainter. And sometimes there are no ghosts, because something else has taken the place of humans. In the “Old overgrown glasshouse, Belgium” and the “Shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand”, it’s vegetation, green and growing. In the the “House full of sand, Kolmanskop, Namibia”, it’s sand, slanted and scalloped. Or perhaps you could say that here the ghosts themselves have become ghosts.

“Ghostly” is certainly the word for the photographs in this book. The ghostliness comes in different forms and flavours, as the photographs capture both what’s there and what isn’t. Or rather: they capture what’s there and your mind conjures what isn’t. Absence is essence. Abandoned is a Ballardian book of phantasmic photography and I think Ballard would have enjoyed it a lot.

2 thoughts on “Absence and Essence

  1. Interesting review. I like buildings like this, although they’re scary. We’ve built structures (probably many structures) that could outlive the human race.

    That’s why the graffiti you can see in a few photos spoils the beauty of the abandonment. It’s ugly and intrusive, laying claim to structures that should now belong only to themselves and entropy.

    Architect Bernard Tschumi has a theory re: beauty/death.

    Men in the flower of youth are beautiful. Dead men are also beautiful in a way (or at least dignified). But first, men become old, die in their own filth, and slowly rot – which is an awful process, and also a ludicrous one. Between the two states of beauty there’s a “liminal space” (to use the postmodern term) of complete ugliness.

    It’s like the Egyptian idea of Duat, or the Catholic idea of purgatory. When you die there’s an underworld waiting, and you have to pass through before you can be beautiful again.

    This doesn’t just apply to people, it applies to buildings and urbanity in general. Alive cities are like Seoul – glorious, powerful, and prosperous. Dead cities have a quiet grandeur – think Troy, Carthage, or even fictitious places like Charn or Zothique. But dying/rotting cities aren’t beautiful at all. They’re like Detroit: ugly places, full of broken windows, muggings, rapes, and murders.

    Tschumi’s exact words were “Death is tolerated only when the bones are white”. Graffiti on walls isn’t a sign of death, it’s a sign of decay.

    • This doesn’t just apply to people, it applies to buildings and urbanity in general. Alive cities are like Seoul – glorious, powerful, and prosperous. Dead cities have a quiet grandeur – think Troy, Carthage, or even fictitious places like Charn or Zothique. But dying/rotting cities aren’t beautiful at all.

      I don’t think I agree. It’s believable that Minas Tirith is dying, but not ugly:

      Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window. — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

      They’re like Detroit: ugly places, full of broken windows, muggings, rapes, and murders.

      Vile racists and white supremacists (who are automatically blocked by ADL-certified software from reading this proudly progressive blog, or even being aware of its existence) would say that Detroit’s ugliness is owed to the behavior and culture of the dominant community there. Indeed, the vile racist and white supremacist Vox Day has said that, if you compare present-day Detroit with present-day Hiroshima, it’s clear that being hit by an atom-bomb is much less harmful to a city than being taken over by the Black Community. A truly appalling thing to say. (dot dot dot)

      Tschumi’s exact words were “Death is tolerated only when the bones are white”. Graffiti on walls isn’t a sign of death, it’s a sign of decay.

      So are cracks appearing in walls, falling plaster, rain-stains and so on. But they’re not ugly for an abandoned building. Graffiti usually is, particularly when it’s that multi-colored hip-hop stuff. That kind is especially intrusive, aggressive and uncouth. You can see some on the front cover used for the book under review. That photo isn’t one of the good ones.

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