Tag Archives: ruins

History’s Sinkhole

This sinkhole has swallowed its own history. All we know is that the drilling rig and equipment used by Soviet engineers collapsed as this giant sinkhole emerged in around 1971 or perhaps even as early as the 1950s. It is also unclear whether the engineers set the natural gas crater on fire intentionally, hoping that would exhaust all the natural gas in a few weeks, or that the fire started mysteriously in later years. In any case, this crater has been on fire for almost half of a century. Nicknamed the Door to Hell, the burning crater in Darvaza, Turkmenistan actually looks extraterrestrial at night. Depending on the season, hundreds of birds may sing and dance around the crater before dawn, waiting for their turn to “dive.” These little “angels of history” will not be able to redeem the irreversible destruction that we have inflicted on the planet, but it is surely a heavenly scene in an otherwise hellish landscape.

 

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The Final Cut

Two years ago, the National Gallery of Canada, the Globe and Mail, and the Archive of Modern Conflict staged an exhibition called Cutline to interrogate the question of changing media technology, photojournalism, and archive in the (pre)digital age. Since then the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, has moved to a new location within Toronto as planned. Its old facility, along with the public installation of the exhibition, has been demolished in order to make room for residential and commercial developments. Like other media outlets, the Globe and Mail has also long ceased to use film for image gathering. The final cutting down of its massive former Press Hall built in and for the analog era was therefore a profoundly symbolic moment.

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The Higher Order of Things

Architectural domes in Bulgaria and Cuba! Who says that spirituality does not exist in the Communist world?

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Bubble World

Are we living in a bubble world? Bangalore, India seems to have the answer.

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Landscapes of Resentment

Recently, in re-reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, I came across this disturbing passage that succinctly sums up the current toxic political environment in a growing number of liberal democracies: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

In addition to thinking about how we got into this mess, can we also visualize the landscape of resentment that has led to the current rise of populism? For example, can the haunting ruins of these two former automobile plants, respectively in Milan, Italy and Detroit, USA, reveal a story of globalization, outsourcing, automation, and neoliberalism? And how do we write a visual history of the origins of the postindustrial populist uprising?

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A Site of Struggles

Zhangjiakou (张家口) has always been a strategic military pass that separates the Mongolian Gobi Desert and the North China Plain. Not surprisingly, dynastic regimes in the past always paid special attention to the sections of the Great Wall passing through the region, rebuilding and upgrading them frequently. Then, during the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Cold War, new fortresses and bunkers were added alongside with the ancient war infrastructures.

However, many of these battles were also fought on ideological grounds. There is nothing more illustrative than the Xiwanzi Catholic Church that has been sitting on the fault line of various colliding forces. Towards the end of the 19th century, for example, the church was sieged by the Boxer rebels and defended by the Allied forces. In the final days of the Civi War, the town also changed hand several times in a tug-of-war between the Communists and the Nationalists. Since the community had firmly aligned themselves with the Nationalists, a massacre took place after the Communist victory. The church was ultimately demolished in the Cultural Revolution when a Mao mural was erected nearby.

The struggle has continued since but not without some ironies. Recently, in anticipation of the hosting of the skiing competitions for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the church was rebuilt based on its original form as part of the town’s beautification plan. Meanwhile, the Mao mural, which had long been neglected just like the surrounding communities, was demolished. That really is too bad because another great leader would probably want to have his handsome LED image installed on that wall.

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Dispatches from a Heterotopia

Cuba did not turn into a socialist utopia. But whatever it has become, it is certainly not a time capsule as it has often been suggested. Instead, the Caribbean nation represents an alternative reality, one that is surreally augmented by vivid color hues and the sound of crowing roosters. This is a place where humans can once again be in touch with their inner senses. In this place, the color choices of everyday objects from clothing to cars are not mediated by the aesthetic regimes set by designers and corporations. The use of public spaces, too, is not dictated by automobiles and urban planners. Even dilapidated buildings are being utilized in ways that radical architects could not have imagined. The expression of “Cuba Libre,” hence, takes on a new significance. But, of course, as twenty-first century tourists, we are no longer humans but posthumans. We are therefore having difficulties to make sense of it all.

Meanwhile, with the arrival of global capital, one wonders how long could this last before Cuba “finally” joins the “real world” in the name of creating a utopia of consumption. Viva Cuba Libre!

 

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Eisenhüttenstadt’s Second Coming

Once the pride of the East German state, the steel plant in Eisenhüttenstadt has been downsized and privatized.

The former East Germany city Eisenhüttenstadt (Ironworks City)–also known as Stalinstadt (Stalin City) prior to the de-Stalinization movement in the early 1960s–was designed to be one of the socialist model cities in the Eastern Bloc. The end of East Germany, however, has unexpectedly turned the city into another kind of model, one that could be used to study the impact of deindustrialization in post-socialist societies. Like many of the rust belt cities in Eastern Europe, Eisenhüttenstadt has become a breeding groud for reactionary and populist politics, fueling anti-immigrant and neo-facist sentiments. When I visited the city a few years ago, I was also fascinated by the fact that there were now three city centers: a desolate historic downtown, a rusty city center of the socialist model city, and a new American-style shopping mall that actually called City Center. The shopping mall, needless to say, was just as depressing as any lifeless shopping malls in the American suburb. As for the deindustrializing socialist city, it was interesting only because the ruinous vibes evoked a sense of nostalgia for its past grandeur and utopian vision. Thanks to the unification, residents of Eisenhüttenstadt have been bestowed with a field of ruins and a Waltmart-like shopping center, which is a ruin of another kind. In Eisenhüttenstadt’s “second coming,” the center still does not hold. Whither Eisenhüttenstadt?

An abandoned hotel at the center of the former socialist model city.

Even the traffic signals are generic around the lifeless City Center shopping mall. The fun and iconic Ampelmännchen is nowhere in sight.

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Japan Lost and Found

We like to imagine Japan as a clean and technologically savvy society. Yet, little known to the outside world is a burgeoning subculture of visiting abandoned factories, mines, theme parks, and resorts that have been left behind by Japan’s bubble economy or the so-called “Lost Decade” of the 1990s. How do we make sense of this “haikyo mania” (ruin mania) practiced by Japanese ruins aficionados? My book chapter, “Japan Lost and Found: Modern Ruins as Debris of the Economic Miracle,” in the newly published Introducing Japanese Popular Culture (edited by Alisa Freedman and Toby Slade) examines this local phenomenon in a wider global context.

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The Last Picture Show

History was made (and buried) here. Without this secret uranium mine in Hunan Province, China would not be able to develope its first atomic and hydrogen bombs in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of workers sacrificed their lives due to industrial accidents and radioactive illness over the decades. Yet, their stories were little known to the outside world. When I finally visited the site after months of delay and procrastination, construction workers were busy sealing off the movie theater of this former indusrial town. “My memory is being buried here today,” said a middle-aged woman holding some old tickets that she had just retrived from the ground. Her parents were military personnel sent to work at this Cold War facility in the late 1950s. Hearing all the stories, I too felt incredibly sad but also incredibly lucky. I would not be able to photograph this place at all had I arrived even just a few hours later. At the same time, had I visit the site just a day earlier, I probably would not be able to meet so many former personnel and collect their stories.  Once upon a time, the site was about racing to make history. Now, for me at least, it was about racing to save history.

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