Sunday, August 21, 2011

Where Art Confronts Anxiety

An article in the Arts & Leisure section of today's New York Times discusses Andrew Moore's photographs of the crumbling grandeur of Detroit: the abandoned Beaux-Arts railroad station (above), the hollow steel skeletons of former assembly rooms in the Ford plant, a moldy carpet in what was once Henry Ford's office. Although some people, particularly residents of Detroit, have criticized Moore's work as "ruin porn" that presents only a negative view of the city, Moore obviously finds a strange beauty in what he sees. He describes Detroit and his photos of it as the place "where art confronts anxiety."

The emergence of art from waste and the grand visions of former times also suffuses the work of photographer Emmet Gowin, who took aerial black-and-white photos of the Hanford Nuclear plant, mining operations in Montana, and the battlefields of Kuwait.

What the work of both these photographers has in common with the philosophy of Radical Joy for Hard Times is a willingness to pause and look more closely at what would seem, on the surface, to be so ugly and obsolete that it requires nothing more than to be ignored. A quick look at the old Detroit train station evokes sadness; one at the Hanford Plant a sense of awe and fear. But Moore and Gowin show that the willingness to simply witness without judgment reveals new beauties.

In the work of Moore and Gowin, however, the human is absent, and the message is that in these places there is no threshold whatsoever over which humans can cross. It is as if all the people who built these places, worked in them, lived in them are as extinct as the activities that went on there. With Radical Joy for Hard Times, one actually enters those deserted places and spends time there. The resulting photographs would zoom out to show not just the place but the people contemplating the place, the people telling their stories about what the place meant and still means to them. Finally they would show the people making an act of beauty from found objects, so that deserted, desolate place acquires, quite simply, new meaning, new purpose, new beauty.