12 August, 2008

Urban ruins

Part of my current research concerns the similarity between reading comics and reading urban spaces. In fact my basic theory is that the social production of comics in urban spaces - which synthesise a wide variety of images and signs of different sorts into their fabric - is what gives comics their unique quality as texts. Anyway...

I am a fan of cities, but especially of ruined cities or districts of them. (I don't know why, but I always have been.)

Some time back, I wrote about a wonderful documentary which imagined how fast our cities would deteriorate if humans were not around to maintain them - very fast; in about 100-150 years they would be ruins - and raised the question of whether cities sustain humans or vice versa.

Two Japanese photographers have done some pretty extensive explorations of latter day ruins: the first is one of my very favourite websites, bar none; the second, is new to me, but features some wonderful images. There is also an excellent US website.

These images are striking for many reasons. They are allegorise impermanence and transience and they are beautiful despite (because of) their ruination. They show the veneer of the human presence on Earth.

These qualities can be summed up by the term Wabi Sabi, a hard-to-translate term in Japanese aesthetics, to describe the beauty inherent in the process
of ruination, decay and erosion. It also implies the sense of mystery and awe - the sublime - that I get from looking at these images of modern ruins.

It's a powerful principle, an observation about nature and humankind's place in it; one of the reasons that old rocks and trees (and ruins) are beautiful is that they are weathered, cracked, worn by the elements. Wabi Sabi belies our belief that we can make things perfect and 'finished'. Time puts its own finish on everything.