Scott Hocking, Ziggurat and FB21 (2007-2009)
With close to fifty photographs in the show and two video pieces, Detroit Revealed: Photography 2000-2010 at the Detroit Institute of Arts offers a satisfying body of work with Nancy Barr's expert curatorial hand in setting the aesthetic and thematic tone of the whole exhibition. The show is a cross-balance of Detroit insiders and outsiders photographing Detroit as a central subject, exploring life and death in a post-apocalyptic city.
The now-cliche idea of "ruin porn" has been mined exhaustively, both by local artists and those attracted by the quixotic failed promise of the Industrial Age, and Barr manages to cull specific examples and meanings in this exhibition with an eye for what has been done. Detroit's dystopia has become its cultural currency, grouped with other shrinking cities such as Lodz, Berlin, Manchester, and Ivanova, and Barr is sure to have been privy to an overload of images of this subject in her position as Curator of Photography at the DIA. Photography, able to capture every detail of detritus and the grainy character of reality, also has a contemporary quality that implies a chronographic reality appropriate to the subject matter. It is an apropos medium for the subject.
Scott Hocking has been photographing scenes of post-apocalyptic Detroit for over a decade. Hocking is a prominent, if not the most prominent, photographic documentarian of Detroit's urban collapse of his generation. A native of Detroit, Hocking is able to tease a poetry out of his diaristic body of work, developed with an intimate physical relationship with the city's ruins, over the last fourteen years. The ziggurat, Hocking's signature, serves as a focal point in many of his photographic projects, an indexical mark of his occupation of the abandoned sites he uses. Physically dragging and stacking materials such as discarded tires or concrete blocks original to the desolate buildings he inhabits, Hocking is able to demonstrate the slow quietness of the labor behind his photographs. The pyramids, evocative of ancient engineering feats, point to a characteristic heaviness and immensity of industrialism, as do the expansive winter skylines in uninhabited portraits of the Detroit landscape. You can almost feel the wind blowing.
A string of black and white photographs in standard format by Michelle Andonian stand out like gems of an experienced eye behind the camera. Also a Detroit resident, Andonian perhaps has had access through her work at the Henry Ford Museum to both empty and occupied factories. The images of bulky machinery and cavernous places shot in Andonian's slightly overexposed black-and-white style evoke images of the fin de siecle of the last century (think Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin). They are clearly contemporary though through Andonian's eye and composition, and is revealed by technical conventions such as wide angle capabilities, as well as by one piece that includes a woman dressed in contemporary garb working in the factory. These are the most skilled and finished photographs in the exhibition, not flashy but tight, well-composed and -scaled.
While Hocking reveals Detroit by relaying an intimacy with the long and lonely winter climate, Corine Vermeulen offers a verdant summer view of Detroit life by foot. Also a resident of Detroit, Vermeulen's body of work reflects a quotidian relationship with the city's inhabitants and landscape, often portraying children in urban prairies and on urban farms and gardens. Vermeulen captures the golden late light of hot Detroit summers, the leafy green plants of urban wildlife overtaking the mise en scene. A small Black boy with red hair and freckles stands against the verdant background; the vegetation and human presence are evidence of young life in an embattered post-industrial city being taken over by nature. Vermeulen's pieces in this exhibition come from a series Today is Yesterday's Tomorrow, elucidating the oxymoronic nostalgia for a future that has come.
If Vermeulen hints at the blooming of life, Carlos Diaz shows vibrant evidence of lives lived with passion. A series of large format color photographs brings us to the backyards of homes in Mexicantown, which are pristinely manicured and gardened. The most striking image is of a shrine layered up as tall as the house with gilt-framed pictures of passed loved ones, colorful ribbons, candles and other trinkets of offering. I feel privileged to be audience to the backyards of these people's homes, the intimacy Diaz offers is quite touching and provides access to a flourishing social circle in Detroit.
Andrew Moore is known for his large format photographs of deteriorating warehouses and structures. Detroit was an obvious draw for him, and indeed Rouge, Detroit (2008-2009) in the show was featured in a New York Times editorial about the attraction of distressed cities when it was exhibited at the Queens Museum in New York last year. The Moore pieces in this exhibition are dominated by his signature blur of water or steam across the photograph, heightening the ghostly abandoned effect against rusty I-beams and giant coils in the long-ago abandoned Ford Rouge Factory. As a Detroit outsider, Moore exposes his tour of Detroit through his series from which the pieces in the exhibition were taken. He visits the crumbling Michigan Theatre, the underground Theatre Bizarre, the defunct Bob-Lo Boat, the brick alleys and dilapidated homes of Detroit. Balancing Moore's hit-and-run ruin tourism with Hocking and Vermeulen's pieces that seem to happen so slowly in time because of their quotidian nature, Barr marries an outsider's perspective of Detroit's effigy with an insider's experience of the everyday.
Dawoud Bey, the photography and video portraitist of note, presents a portrait and an interview of a Black youth explaining his epiphany of realizing that his own behavior affects the way he is treated by others in return. A coming of age story that happens again and again, a new discovery with resounding truth for young adults and perhaps with peculiar strength for a young African-American male from Detroit. Ari Marcopoulos is also represented in this exhibition with a detournement video piece traversing through the streets of Detroit. His well-known touch for savage reality with tender intimacy is a theme in this show, and Barr has smartly included him in this showcase of Detroit.
Contemporary photography exhibitions seem to have trouble coalescing into a cohesive aesthetic and curatorial body. Detroit Revealed, though, hits a pitch and poetry that lives up to its title. Unlike Nancy Barr's recent juried show at the Detroit Center for Contemporary Photography, which ranged all over the place in quality, subject matter and format, Detroit Revealed is more telling of Barr's curatorial finesse. The threads of each artist's oeuvre investigating urbanity in post-industrial culture are put together here to intersect at their impressions of Detroit. The blustery desolation of factories is juxtaposed with intimate portraits of life in Detroit, hinting at the peculiar pockets of activity unseen by tourists. The tenderness and diverse perspective with which Detroit is showcased in this exhibition reveals Barr's excellence in curatorial vocabulary of the subject matter and those artists investigating this genre.