As a gentle breeze waifs through a summer’s afternoon
And across the green fields of Couchez Farm down towards
The water, we remember our city asleep by the Lake of St. Clair.
—“Across These Lawns,” M.L. Liebler
On ViewQueens Museum of Art
August 28, 2011 – January 15, 2012
Fact: Detroit’s population has decreased by over 60 percent since 1950. Fact: What was formerly the Rouge Steel Company in Dearborn was purchased in 2004 and is now owned and operated by Severstal, the Russian steelmaker. Fact: General Motors, which received $50 billion in U.S. Government bankruptcy bailout loans in June 2009, preemptively announced in May 2009 that it would “start importing vehicles made in China in 2011,” that it planned “to trim 21,000 hourly workers and close 13 of its 47 U.S. plants by the end of 2010,” as reported by The Detroit News. In fact, the U.S. Government specifically mandated that GM outsource American jobs as part of its recovery plan. This was nothing new: GM job outsourcing was famously documented in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me in 1989. Fact: “Ruin porn” is an emerging category of American tourism. According to an exhibition caption, “Europeans have started visiting Detroit to see America’s ruins.” Fact: You will not be able to view Detroit Disassembled without being impressed with—and depressed by—the extent of America’s humiliating, elite-inflicted decline.
It was in the context of decline that I first became acquainted with photographer Andrew Moore’s work. One of the themes of the Whitney’s 2010 Edward Hopper exhibition was that America’s artistic elite was entranced by—and unabashed cheerleaders for—America’s Economic Miracle in the 20th Century (they not having lived through the Long Depression of 1873-1896) but had the wind taken out of their sails (with the exception of Hopper, who was just hitting stride, patronized by Mrs. Whitney) when the Great Depression hit. A notable example was the talented Charles Sheeler, who was commissioned by an advertising agency in 1931 to paint Ford’s then-new River Rouge Complex, the Shining City on the Hill’s Cathedral of the Happy Proletariat and “humane” Arbeit lab of architect Albert Kahn. Unfortunately for Sheeler, the first of several collapses in the auto industry occurred in 1932, before the paint had metaphorically dried on his protophotorealist encomium.
Aesthetically enamored of Sheeler’s icon, I discovered Moore’s fine artwork, the high end of the grungy hipster genre of “urban exploration” (“urbex”) presaged in New York a century ago by Jacob Riis, more recently pioneered by Rutgers’s “rephotographer” Camilo José Vergara and his Invincible Cities website, and innumerable amateurs in Detroit and worldwide. Albeit unoriginal, Moore’s photos at the Queens Museum of Art should be seen firsthand—as an object lesson in industrial capitalism, the ramifications of globalization, inhumanity and shortsightedness, and an urgent call to action to rethink consumerism. Seeing them at the decrepit QMA, formerly the New York State Building at the 1939 World’s Fair; the home of the United Nations General Assembly, 1946-1950; and above-ground cemetery of the rotting bones of the 1964 World’s Fair, lends a brutalist poignancy to the experience. During its current renovation, the QMA endures the indignity of long-broken windows, empty fountains, and a boarded-off entrance. In the near distance, the remains of acclaimed architect Philip Johnson’s “Tent of Tomorrow” disintegrate (its likewise rusting observation towers recently made refamiliar as flying saucers in Men in Black). Driving this irony home is the only item standing in reasonable repair: the stainless steel Unisphere, ringed by greywater geysers, the shining world which America topped in 1964, girdled by the orbital trajectories of Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacecraft (although he didn’t actually orbit), Telstar, and Yuri Gagarin. Yes, kids, America held 50 percent of the world’s wealth circa 1950 (now just over 20), launched the first telecommunications satellite in 1962, placed men on the moon in 1969, and outsourced the last non-service American jobs in 2020. Do I exaggerate?
Installed, Moore’s chromogenic prints are beautiful if devastating. The helter-skelter view camera stills of abandoned infrastructure bring fine detail and supersaturated color to bear on the unbearable. “The Aurora, Brush Park neighborhood” (2008), a solitary building, is most beautiful, obscured by ominous, Venusian wisps of steam from a streetside stovepipe. Moore’s photos eerily evoke A Clockwork Orange junkscape of post-civilizational collapse, and perversely turn 1970s painterly photorealism on its head, being likewise devoid of people, but not scrubbed clean, nor sunny-dayed.
Moore disingenuously disclaims his work, lauding the opportunity for revitalization that capitalism’s “creative destruction” so routinely delivers: “Out of this reordering,” he imagines, “have come new symbols of renewal and growth.” Contrariwise, Moore’s Detroit looks most like Alan Weisman’s self-explanatory The World Without Us: in “House on Walden Street, East Side” (2008), an envelopment of kudzu lushly overruns. Coincidentally, an itemization of no less than 13 “BUISNESS [sic] DEPRESSION”s, beginning in 1819, by another American artist, Grant Wood, is featured in the Morgan Library’s current “Lists” show. As Wood sardonically appends, “ALL CAME TO AN END EXCEPT THIS ONE.. MEBBE THIS WILL. ….”
Further clouding Moore’s credibility, and compromising Detroit’s integrity, is an exhibitionette upstairs of photos he took in Russia and Cuba a decade ago purporting to show analogous decay, as in “See, socialism also failed.” Mebbe, but los jugadores at the Cuban campo de béisbol haven’t abandoned their diamante, somehow surviving the slogan “Socialismo O Muerte” spraypainted on the bleachers.
Still, Moore’s disclaimers belie an overt, if opportunistic activist subtext. “And You Shall Say God Did It,” a teetering balcony guillotine plaque deadpans in the “Sanctuary, East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church” (2009), a crumbling mise-en-scène. Less convincingly, because it looks staged, the blown-out interior in “Arnold Nursing Home, Seven Mile Road” (2009), contains the too-convenient, dubious graffiti, “God has left Detroit.” Most chilling is “Chemistry Lab, Former Cass Technical High School” (2009), abandoned in 2005/6, after Cass—home, we read, to such illustrious alumni as Diana Ross, John DeLorean, Lily Tomlin and White Stripes musician Jack White—moved to new quarters, leaving everything behind. It’s here that Moore most credibly documents profligacy, but also here that his work is eclipsed by that of an amateur, the creator of detroiturbex.com, who makes Moore’s work look fine art phony. Unlike Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, who skewered the American Dream during the Great Depression and the Exceptional ’50s, respectively, Moore’s vandalized Cass appears art gallery airbrushed, whereas detroiturbex.com is real. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee, and Moore’s entire uvre and agenda become irredeemably suspect.
Despite its drive-by exploitiveness, Detroit is nothing if not savvy. Its catalogue features an essay by America’s new Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, who invokes Detroit’s motto, established after the devastating 1805 fire: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus. “We hope for better; it re-emerges from the flames.” Of course we do, but not everything does, despite our fondest fantasies. Lines from Levine’s “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit” have more integrity:
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
On second thought, a trip to Detroit—in reality or photos—isn’t needed. The abandoned Domino Sugar factory, employing 4,500 at its peak, awaits, perhaps, gentrification on the East River in Brooklyn. New York, we are cheerfully told, is now a financial center. Resurget Cineribus, my ass.