Detroit After Autos

News Review

The Rolling Hall at Ford’s abandoned River Rouge complex.
Andrew Moore
A clock at the former Cass Technical High School.

Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore
Akron Art Museum
1 South High Street
Akron, Ohio
Through October 10

Rotting carpet, stained a sodden green, spreads to the paneled walls of an old office, breaking up into a rumpled, uneven patchwork. This scene of longstanding neglect is the subject of one of Andrew Moore’s large photographs on exhibit at the Akron Art Museum. As a cogent study of intimate aspects of postindustrial decay, it’s a success. Yet there’s more to it; something wild peeks out around the edges of Moore’s sharply detailed, scientifically precise digital chromogenic print: a panorama of humid fields, maybe, cultivated in the receding folds of some otherworldly landscape.

Such a hidden world, found at the intersection of form, function, and decay, seems to underlie many of Moore’s images. Photographed last year at the old Ford headquarters in Highland Park, Detroit, the room is part of a lost world of commerce and architecture, left desolate by economic upheaval. Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore shows 30 subtly mind-bending images made over a period of a few months during 2008–2009 that document an epic history of corporate failure and its long aftermath. As Moore writes, “Detroit’s transfiguration has led it beyond decay into a surreal landscape, where the past is receding so fast that time itself seems distorted.” More than in his earlier documentary photographs of buildings and street scenes in Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and New Orleans, Moore’s emphasis here is on epiphanies of scale, and on the subjective experience of time.

House on Walden Street, East Side (2008).

The dramatic beauty and pictorial perfection of large-scale photographs of the Packard Motor Car Company plant or Michigan Central Station lend them a gee-whiz romantic grandeur and theatricality, which is perhaps misleading. Neither tragic, ironic, nor nostalgic, they take a long, very contemporary look at the way various types of degradation bring forth utterly strange, transitional vistas.

Some of the buildings Moore observes in this way are seminal structures. He conveys the vastness of Albert Kahn’s 1907 Packard Plant, the first industrial building in America constructed with reinforced concrete. Castellated tile battlements glow in afternoon light at the 1924 Metropolitan Building, the masterpiece of Detroit architects Weston and Ellington. The abandonment of such monuments, like the capitals of roman columns protruding from an unexcavated forum, reminds us of the overwhelming powers that sweep all life toward annihilation.

Birches growing at the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository.

But the closest precedents for Moore’s thematic choices probably aren’t the neoclassical landscapes of Claude Lorrain or even the magnificent effusions of the Hudson River school, but experimental real-life alterations by artists like Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark. The latter’s openings cut in the sides of abandoned apartments in the Bronx, and Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University, were, like Moore’s work, collaborations with the inevitability of decay.

Moore is especially adept when he photographs anonymous scenes, like House on Walden Street, East Side (2008). Engulfed in the fecund embrace of a kudzu-like vine, the old peaked house seems to impersonate an oversize bush; or it may be that the house itself was consumed long ago. In the fresh grave that is much of Detroit, Moore discovers evidence of the improbable continuities of life, breeding from the soil of disappointment as readily as from triumph. Noting these oddly thrilling instances of metamorphosis, his realism becomes magical.

Read all of AN‘s Friday Reviews here.

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