Naturalia: Anatomy of Contemporary Ruins

 

The Path of Nature

By Alain SCHNAPP
French historian and archeologist
Author of many books related to ruins
Professor emeritus of Greek archeology at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University
Former director of the History of Art and Archeology department of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University
Former director of the National Institute of History of Art (Institut national d’histoire de l’art – INHA)

 

Somewhere between nature and culture, Jonk’s photographic work is in some way the prolongation of this duel vision of ruins. On the one hand, the interpretation of ruins as a social fact and on the other, an artistic vision that favours an almost organic approach. His camera lens, through the softly-coloured photographs, take us on a journey across tall architectural structures often completely overrun with rambling weeds, immense concrete or steel shells that have fallen into ruin, as well as vehicles, cars, planes and tanks. All of these images are marked by signs of decrepitude, ageing or dilapidation. Ruins, he appears to be telling us, are just one stage of the process, later followed by heaps of rubble, and further still down the line nothing more than the traces or vestiges of what came before. The force of his work lies in the skilful use of contrasts: take the silos in Belgium (Slide 2) and the theme park in Chernobyl (Slide 26). The light falling on the round opening of the silo illuminates the plants invading it at their leisure, whilst despite the proliferation of bushes and the sparkling blue sky, the rusty ironwork roof of the bumper car stand suggests desolation, reinforced further by the dilapidated yellow and blue shell of an abandoned bumper car. The same goes for the sleepy Lada lost in the forest (Slide 35), resigned to its own mineralization and in stark contrast with the enormous tree trunks sprouting out of the front of the vehicle (Slide 21) in a Belgian garage. Sometimes the work of nature reassures and calms us, sometimes it makes us anguished and anxious. Between these two extremes, the carefully juxtaposed images here are reminiscent of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Plutarch’s biographies of illustrious men presented them in contrasting pairs that were just as striking as Jonk’s photos. The same can be said of the cloister of the Belgian monastery (Slide 8) and the colonnade in the Croatian castle (Slide 24). The solidity of the austere architecture of the brick courtyard is magnified by the invasion of rampant ferns, and they have even overrun the cross at the centre of the building. This colonisation of the mineral world by the organic one appears logical; it covers over without destroying, suggests without erasing. The colonnade of the Croatian castle is disfigured by the concrete pillars in the foreground and the collapsed girder, barely supported by the remains of a brick wall. The contrasting styles, the dilapidated walls, the ferns emerging out of the gardens appear far more threatening. This scene announces another stage, the almost total invasion of the Italian church (Slide 16) of which only the choir still remains, and the hotel in Germany (Slide 22) where all that subsists are a few door and window frames. It is not yet just a pile of rubble but not far from it, not unlike the austere pillars of the Montenegrin castle (Slide 19) or the room in the Italian villa with its gapping openings and decrepit wooden framework (Slide 4). By using different formats, types of buildings and of course camera angles, Jonathan Jimenez presents us with a detailed anatomy of contemporary ruins that scrutinises each and every artefact down to their very essence. After the ruins come the vestiges, after the heaps of rubble, the last visible traces, like these thick volumes abandoned on the hotplate of an old oven (Slide 29) found in the ruins of an improbable museum completely overrun with greenery.

Naturalia is a long journey between memory and forgetting, ruins and vegetation, modernity and Antiquity. Perhaps this poem by Bertolt Brecht holds the key:

 

How long

Do works survive? The time

It takes us to finish them.

Because as long as we keep struggling to make them

They do not decline.

 An invitation to work

With the promise of reward for effort,

Their essence endures as long as

They invite and reward.

The useful ones

Require human usage

The artistic ones

Offer a place in art

The knowledgeable ones

Demand wisdom

Those destined to be perfect

Suffer from incompleteness

Those made to last

Perpetually deteriorate

Those designed to be great

Remain unfinished.

Still unfinished

Like the wall waiting for the ivy

(The one that was once incomplete

Before ageing, before the ivy came along, bald!)

Still temporary

Just like the machine we need

But which doesn’t fulfil all needs

But is however the promise that a better one

Must be built

Just like a work over time such is

The machine full of imperfections.

B.Brecht, Gesammelte Werke 8: Gedichte 1, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M. 1967, S. 387-388. 

Translation for German to French by Michaël and Evelyne Nerlich who Alain SCHNAPP warmly thanks.

Global text translated from French to English by Lisa Richardson.