Detroit’s Problem with “Ruin Porn”

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Detroit-abandoned

February 25, 2016; Detroit Free Press

For a city that is looking to remake its image, a constant stream of images of decay, or “ruin porn,” can become a problem. Now, American-born expatriate artist Ryan Mendoza has dispensed with the photography and carted an entire abandoned two-story house overseas for display.

“Seen in a very simplistic way, this would be an exploitation,” Mendoza said last week from Berlin. “But seen in a profound way, this is about connection. I could do one of two things as an artist going back to my country and seeing problems that are inherent in the society. I could ignore them, or I could embrace them. I chose to embrace them.”

“The most interesting implications are political,” said Dora Apel, an art historian at Wayne State University and the author of Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (2015). “The debate is about ruin porn, because there aren’t larger political strategies in place to truly deal with the bigger issues behind the ruins in cities like Detroit. People look for ways to get a handle on issues, and this is what they’ve got.”

Already displayed at an art fair in the Netherlands, “The White House” is now headed to the Verbeke Foundation, a privately-owned museum that is open to the public.

On the website of the Detroit Metro Times, Colleen Kowalewski writes that the “Berlin-based artist has taken ruin porn to a whole new level. Not content with merely photos of abandoned buildings, he’s taken a life-size slice of Detroit blight back to Europe for display.”

Craig Fahle, director of public relations at the Detroit Land Bank, said, “Our job is to eliminate blight and restore neighborhoods. Regardless of the quality or intentions of the artist, it wasn’t something that we wanted to be involved in—highlighting the one thing we are working so hard to eliminate.”

Perhaps in response to the criticism, Mendoza now has a plan to ship additional façades of Detroit houses overseas to auction them (sigh) for the benefit of Detroit’s neighborhoods.—Ruth McCambridge