Artists have long been fascinated by ruins and what they tell us about generations past but Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre explored the debris of a much more recent urban collapse in Detroit. Their jaw-dropping photographs of the Motor City wreckage are fascinating pieces in their own right, but they are also important records, a peek under our shiny facade where the social fabric has been ripped up, telling us things about our triumphs and our disasters. With a new show just opened at The Wilmotte Gallery, we spoke to Romain and Yves…
How would you describe to Detroit for someone who has never been there?
Detroit is a typical American city, vibrant and full of contrast. It would be difficult to find a city whose transformation is so strongly linked to the forces of recent history. In some areas the fabric of the city has disintegrated so dramatically that you don’t feel that you are in an urban environment anymore. This gives Detroit a very particular flavour.
How did you find the places to photograph? Was it dangerous getting into some of them?
In some cases by looking online and scouring maps. We would make a list and then go explore. Ruins have a certain mystic about them which results in people projecting their fears onto them. We never had any trouble although it is always worth keeping your wits about you!
What do you think the pictures tell us about America?
These photographs tell a story which goes further than America. The car had a great impact changing our landscape forever. However, it is just another chapter in our history.
In Asia today factories are being built and new empires created but as the ancient proverb warns, ‘this too will pass’ – everything is essentially temporary. America is going through a transition, which Europe experienced before. What is particular to this situation is that commercialism was essentially invented and exported to the rest of the world from Detroit.
Walking around Detroit it seems strange that unlike in Europe, Detroit’s ruins are left to rot instead of being cleared away. The effect of this, paradoxically, is to remind us of how grand the city was in its prime.
How do you feel about writers like Jeffrey Eugenides who have cautioned against romanticising the ruins of his hometown?
Of course we need to be respectful. Generally, it depends on which ruins you are looking at. For example, Michigan Central Station or some of the old theatres evoke ancient temples disconnected from our own times, whereas others such as recently-closed schools and libraries are more complicated as they point to social disintegration and the failing of our modern way of life.
We think the ruins deserve to be looked at directly before they disappear so they act as a record and tell a story even if there is no fairy-tale ending.
The show runs until 5 April.