The photographs in this post are of an abandoned hot springs resort/health spa, taken by me in July 2009. The resort is situated in Aliwal North, a tiny town on the border of South Africa’s Free State and Eastern Cape provinces. During Victorian times, and continuing into the dark era of Apartheid, this settlement on the Orange River was a popular holiday destination (whose amenities would have been available to whites only). I was stuck here for several days following a car accident, so I went exploring. I was told by a local that the resort had fallen into disrepair only recently, in the past decade, due to mismanagement of the allocated maintenance funds. I wondered to what extent this might reflect a rejection of the resort’s oppressive past by its post-1994 custodians.
I share the fascination with documenting ruins and decay that is the subject of the following excerpt from the excellent blog, Archaeology and Material Culture:
An astounding number of web pages document abandoned materiality, encompassing a broad range of architectural spaces including asylums, bowling alleys,industrial sites, Cold War sites, and roadside motels as well as smaller things like pianosand even scale models of abandonment. This ruination lust is not simply the province of a small handful of visual artists, hipsters colonizing Detroit, or recalcitrant trespassers; instead, it invokes something that reaches far deeper socially, has international dimensions, extends well into the past, and reflects a deep-seated fascination with—if not apprehension of—abandonment. The question is what explains our apparently sudden collective fascination with abandonment, ruination, and decay. The answers are exceptionally complex and highly individual, but there seem to be some recurrent metaphors in these discourses.
For “urban explorers” (a term that might loosely include artists, photographers, archaeologists, and curious folks alike), such journeys seek out “abandoned, unseen, and off-limits” spaces that imagine ruination in a wide range of artistic, emotional, scholarly, and political forms. Many of these urban explorers and artists see themselves as visual historians, documenting the architectural and community heritage reflected in abandoned spaces. For instance, Jonathan Haeber’s urban exploration blog Bearings explains that “I’m just an eye. I’m just a camera. … An urban explorer is just a documentarian. … We only appreciate the creations that are overlooked. … It is what remains that is the democratic equivalent of a revolution.”
This is a politically circumspect expression of the explorer as a visual chronicler who records the prosaic material dimensions of abandoned material heritage. It focuses on the power of aesthetically documenting abandonment, often to fortify a general appreciation for the breadth of heritage but not always in especially articulate ways. Urban Ghosts: Forgotten Places and Urban Curiosities, for example, argues that its mission through such images is to underscore that “History is all around us, on every street corner. Almost every place has a story to tell, but so much goes unnoticed, or simply pales into insignificance alongside heavy-hitting giants like the pyramids.” …
… Many of these projects focus on how the photographic representation of abandonment is utterly dependent on the bodily experience of a creative, curious, and sympathetic eye moving through ruined landscapes. Matthew Christopher’s Abandoned America page has thoroughly chronicled urban abandonment, and his assessment of abandonment hinges on the physical experience of moving through these ruined landscapes, which he refers to as the “visceral experience of entering a parallel universe.” In an Atlantic Cities article on“ruin porn,” Christopher acknowledged that “It was a case of that old cliché, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words.’ … When I’d try to talk about the presences that seem to linger in these places, people would look at me like I should be in an asylum myself. When I showed them pictures — they’d suddenly get it.
”Many if not most urban explorers believe that a visual record of a place is uniquely documented by a photographer who thinks creatively and embraces prosaic ruination, taking pictures in ways that our sight may not otherwise have seen and stressing what Travis Parno calls “the potency of the imagination.” Beauty in Decay, for instance, aspires to “walk in the eerie footsteps of long departed souls through haunted houses turned to dust and industrial complexes surrendered to nature,” arguing that “to understand the siren song of these places requires a certainly more poetic mindset than one might be used to occupying. Think back to your childhood for a moment and it all begins to make sense. … At the very point we cross the border from childhood into adolescence we cross real physical borders too. It’s the moment in our lives when we test the boundaries.”
Read more of this fascinating article by Brian Dillon at Archaeology and Material Culture.