Saturday, August 28, 2010

Akron Art Museum show: A sobering urban tale

THERE'S A remarkable show under way at the Akron Art Museum that is a sobering narrative of a great American city that has long been mired in grotesque decay. The exhibition is titled "Detroit Disassembled" and tells its bleak story with a series of starkly revealing large-format photographs by New York-based photographer Andrew Moore. You will be troubled by the desolate images that you see, but the best artistry is of necessity always evocative.

The trajectory of Moore's work is not meant to comfort the viewer. Instead, it is what it is: a tale of urban neglect that can embrace the decline in many other once-teeming cities, but even more so in Detroit's scattered ruins ranging from Henry Ford's now eerily disfigured executive suite with is green carpet ridged and bunched up in distorted squares, to the abandoned Jane Cooper Elementary School building that nature has now surrounded with scrubby untended prairie growth. (The crisply edited wall tags note that the houses around the school were razed for an industrial park that was never built.

The interiors of certain auto plants are nothing more than rubble. A house that once provided family's shelter and hearth is fully masked by vines. No matter which way you turn to view another photo, there can be no escape from a sense of stark abandonment.

All this, in the past half century as the auto industry lost its way. Political corruption deflected the city's real needs, vandalism flourished and crime found many opportunities to thrive as residents fled to the suburbs. There is a reference in museum material to Pompeii. But it suffered a natural disaster two millennia ago. Still, as one who has walked the paths of Pompeii's excavated ruins, I could wonder about the victims without feeling a tug of belonging and loss about something that happened so long ago. With Moore's photos, however, you must ask how it could have happened in a way that left the city of nearly 2 million residents in 1950 with less than half of that today. A third of the city's land is vacated. The irony of modern industrialization that now stands exposed to its dark side is a guilt that an entire generation can share as a social burden. There's no attempt by this exhibition to disguise that message.

Some Deroit natives have understandably considered such a baring of the city's open sores - "ruins porn" - as an unfair indictment that singles out their city against all others. But Andrew Moore has looked in on other places around the world, too - say, Cuba and the border regions of Russia, for his images. With this show, it was Detroit's turn. Whether intentional or not, there are no people in the photos to engender life. It is simply discarded and rotting non-human matter.

The photos were loaned to the museum from the collection of Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell. Bidwell is an Akron advertising executive. The show, a premiere exhibition, runs through Oct. 10. It has drawn many visitors and interest continues to grow, says Barbara Tannenbaum, the museum's Director of Curatorial Affairs. She says the photos will likely move on to other venues, but nothing is set. Moore will lecture at the museum on Thursday, Sept. 16 at 6:30 p,m. followed by a book signing. . The event is free.

In one of the pictures, someone has scrawled on a wall: God has left Detroit. There are steps being taken today to fill the vacancy with the combined efforts of City Hall, foundations and the Federal government. In the introduction to the show, questions are asked:
"Decay is but one step in a cycle that advances to renewal and growth. Moore's documentation of crumbling Detroit contains glimmers of hope. Will Detroit become America's Pompeii or will it lead the way to a new model for America's shrinking post-industrial cities?"
The jury will be out for awhile. Meantime, mark this down on your calendar as a show you can't afford to ignore. It is a harsh reminder that our society will have to find a way to do better.

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