What 'ruin porn' tells us about ruins -- and porn

Story highlights

  • Ruined buildings have become popular subjects for photographers
  • Critics claim the term trivializes the causes of destruction and urban decay
  • It can also be understood as a bleak, if beautiful, reminder of the impermanence

Siobhan Lyons is a tutor in Media and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

(CNN)Ah, porn. Few words come with as many pre-loaded connotations and assumptions -- the promise of titillation, the thrill of taboo, the inherent air of seediness. Think poverty porn. Think food porn. Think good-old fashioned porn-porn. So what are we to make of "ruin porn", the work of photographers and artists who aim to communicate the romantic frisson -- as they see it -- of run-down buildings?

The term has cropped up with increasing regularity in the last few years. The ruins of Chernobyl, the Holocaust, Detroit's urban decay, and even abandoned amusement parks have become havens for "ruin photographers".
In his recent book The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (2015), US theorist Brian McHale claims that artist Robert Smithson's work acts as a precursor to ruin porn. He argues that the photographic documentation of ruin "arguably begins with Smithson's deadpan photographs of modern industrial wastelands in his conceptual-art project A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey."
    This, he argues, has since proliferated into "an abundant photographic record of urban decay and ruin in the wake of the deindustrialisation of North American 'Rust Belt' cities". These ruins, he notes, are self-inflicted, rather than the result of warfare and international conflict, as with 9/11. The fascination with Detroit's urban decay is the direct result of economic failure, specifically the downturn of the motor industry in the 1970s.
    Its ruins have since been the subject of much obsession, including numerous articles, photographic essays and online galleries.
    The allure of ruin remains prominent in tourism and popular culture, including abandoned amusement parks such as Sydney's Magic Kingdom park, Germany's Cold War-era Spreepark, and Japan's Takakanonuma Greenland in the Fukushima district. Photographers who capture these sites have a name: "urban explorers", and many keep diaries of their discoveries on social media platforms.
    These images represent not only economic failure, but ideological failure, representing a break with modernized conceptions of cultural innocence and everyday enjoyment.
    The term "ruin porn" has been met with great criticism for its exploitative nature and use in trivializing the causes of destruction and urban decay. In 2013, art critic Richard B. Woodward argued that:
    "Ruin Porn is a phrase so immature and gawky it isn't sure how seriously to take itself. Like its linguistic relatives 'animal porn,' 'shoe porn,' 'food porn,' 'real estate porn,' and 'fill-in-the-blank porn,' it's a smirking neologism that may or may not aspire to be a social critique."
    This celebration of ruin and destruction was evidenced in the 2014 exhibition Ruin Lust at London's Tate Gallery, which featured art works from the seventeenth century to today, all of which engaged in imagery of ruin, war, or apocalypse.
    There were photographs of decayed Nazi bunkers and artist JMW Turner's sketches of decayed abbeys. The exhibition sought to chronicle society's continued obsession with "the ruin" within the inevitable narrative of decay.
    While giving the exhibition a good review, Jonathan Jones at The Guardian stated that the term "lust" was essentially misleading:
    "So many things vanish. Yet ruins remain in the landscape, reassuring the mind that death might not be the end. Is it "lust" to linger in those places? The joy this exhibition insists on may in reality be more of a sweet sorrow."
    In 2013, Kate Abbey-Lambertz of the Huffington Post wrote:
    "Some have expressed frustration at the way decline is glamorized or exploited -- it's called ruin porn for a reason -- rather than seen as part of the city's larger ills. While some think iconic buildings should be preserved for their historical significance, others [see] them as eyesores, havens for crime or obstacles to the city's renewal."
    Criticisms of ruin porn stem from the suggestion that these photographs are bereft of any sort of socio-economic context regarding their cause and aftermath, and are dismissive of the broader failures of modern economic life. Yet as Dora Apel writes in her recent book Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (2015):
    "Even if we take the term 'ruin porn' at face value and see the objective of ruin imagery as the production of pleasure or arousal, to condemn the massive proliferation of ruin images on this basis leads to no new insight or knowledge. The more productive questions are how ruins images please, move, or arouse and what purpose this serves."
    For Apel, part of the allure of these sites and the "deindustrial sublime" stems from the act of "tempering the anxiety of decline". Jones, moreover, notes that our fascination is more to do with the concept of time.
    Indeed, ruin sites provide something of a realistic glimpse into post-apocalyptic life for humanity, and hence provoke our engagement with ruin while we are still alive. Toronto-based academic Tong Lam, in his 2013 book Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World, argues: "in a way, we are already post-apocalyptic."
    Ruins appear to confront society's faith in anthropological endurance. Decaying buildings signify the inevitable process of history, to which we, too, will eventually succumb. Essentially, 'ruin porn' is a kind of time travel to the future within the present.
    As US academic Jason McGrath wrote in his 2014 paper Apocalypse, or, the Logic of Late Anthropocene Ruins:
    "The posthuman gaze at modernist ruins reminds us that, no matter how many new objects we produce, consume, and discard, those objects will in many cases far outlive us and the purposes to which we put them."
    But the discrepancy between melancholic fascination with ruins and actual arousal ought to be made clear. Kate Brown, in her book Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (2015), shrewdly distinguishes between ruin porn and what she calls "rustalgia".
    Noting that there are those who find beauty in decay but also danger for those who inhabit it, she argues, in a similar manner to Jones:
    "Some will be fascinated from the outside, producing more ruin porn. Others will speak in mournful tones of what is lost, what I call rustalgia. As opposed to ruin porn, rustalgia can help show how sketchy is the longstanding faith in the necessity of perpetual economic growth."
    For certain people, ruin remains a concept, not a reality. While ruin porn greatly trivializes the social and psychological implications of decay, it can be understood more broadly as something of an antidote to the bleak reality of inevitable, complete destruction, something more depressing than beautiful.
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