Naturalia: Chronicle of Contemporary Ruins

As a child, I saw a wildlife documentary that marked my life. It focused on the melting of the ice caps and its consequences on polar bears’ life. I still remember this bear that struggled to swim and find a piece of ice floe. It seems that “children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression.” (Dr Haim Ginott). This vision marked me so much that during all my childhood, every time any of my parents did anything that seemed bad for the environment, it told them this sentence: «Watch out, you kill the bears!!”

This ecological consciousness, that moves me since my youngest age, has little by little focused my interest on abandoned places reclaimed by Nature. She is stronger, and whatever happens to Man, She will always be there.

Moreover, Naturalia: Chronicle of Contemporary Ruins asks a fundamental question: that of the place of Man on Earth and his relationship with Nature. Far from being pessimistic, and at a time when Man’s domination of Nature has never been so extreme, it aims to wake our consciousness.

Man builds, Man abandons. Every time for his own peculiar reasons. Nature does not care about those reasons. But one thing is for sure, when Man leaves, She comes back and She takes back everything.

In his poem Eternity of Nature, brevity of Man, Alphonse de Lamartine writes “Triumph, immortal Nature! / Whose hand full of days / Lends unlimited strengths / Times that always rise again!” In her inexorable progression, She starts reclaiming a statue in the park of a French castle (slide 1). Then, She tackles the facade of an Italian villa (12) before infiltrating the interior of a Croatian castle (14) or a Belgian greenhouse (25). Then, She grows in the atrium of a Polish palace (31), in a Hungarian train station (32) or a Cuban theater (34) before invading a Montenegrin castle (52). Next, given more time, She imprisons a Taiwanese mansion with her strong roots (59).

The next steps? Collapse and burial.

French poet Léo Ferré said “With Time goes, everything goes”. So, when Nature and Time will have taken back what Man abandons, what will be left of our civilization?

By Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Photographer, reporter, director and environmentalist. President of theGoodPlanet Foundation

(Part of the preface of my book Naturalia II)

When I met Jonk and he showed me his project, I could feel he was driven by a real passion, almost an obsession. I love people who are impassioned; they are the ones who actually make things happen. We have a lot of things in common. We are both self-taught, I learnt how to take photos from the lions and he learnt on abandoned wastelands.  It was the Rio Conference in 1992 and the double-page spread about it in Le Monde that pushed me to start working on La Terre vue du ciel. It was the first time sustainable development, global warming and declining biodiversity were mentioned. As for Jonk, he was triggered off by a documentary on the melting ice-caps and its consequences on the lives of polar bears. When I was making La Terre vue du ciel, I really felt that I was creating something and that all of these photographs, one next to the other, was something very powerful. I was one of the only people to believe it then but I was driven by a passion that pushed me to keep going. And today, Jonk is driven by the same passion. […]Today, the way forward is to tell the truth. What we can do as photographs is to confront people with the truth. What Jonk is doing with Naturalia carries a really strong message: showing how the Earth would look if Man were to disappear. This message might be apocalyptic. But the way he does it certainly isn’t at all. By carefully choosing the places he photographs, Jonk uses beauty to get his message across. The understated framing strengthens the message even further. Jonk takes a back seat compared to his images. A beautiful photo, simple, without artifice, is worth more than any discourse and warns people that there is a real urgency, the threat is real, the  future of humanity is in our hands, it is too late to be pessimistic and that it’s time for action. Through his work, he tries to make people aware that they must take action now. He wants to bring ecology to the forefront of people’s minds.

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)

(Part of the preface of my book Naturalia)

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 33) and the theme park in Chernobyl (Slide 27). 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 60), resigned to its own mineralization and in stark contrast with the enormous tree trunks sprouting out of the front of the truck (Slide 61) 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 53) and the colonnade in the Croatian castle (Slide 1). 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 63) of which only the choir still remains, and the hotel in Germany (Slide 62) 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 57) or the room in the Italian villa with its gapping openings and decrepit wooden framework (Slide 51). 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 17) 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

More pictures here.

“It is a sad thing to think that Nature talks and that mankind does not listen” Victor Hugo

“We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings” Albert Einstein