Ruins appear to have first consciously been incorporated into architecture and art during the sixteenth-century Mannerist and early Baroque periods. During the nineteenth century, too, there was a tremendous fascination with ancient Greek and Roman ruins in England and Germany, where it became vogue to include them in paintings and prints. Ruins came to be understood as something both strange and beautiful, and a taste for them swept the whole of Europe. New buildings were intentionally constructed to look dilapidated while gardens of ruins, which combined geometric landscaping with crumbling structures brought in from elsewhere, became tourist attractions; in this way, ruins became an accepted part of society. Could it have been the march of modernization that led more and more people to draw aesthetic enjoyment from ruins?
Gardens of ruins—in which present and past intersect in a mix of elaborately designed landscapes and ruins left to the mercy of the elements—have a sense of time all their own. What makes them unique, I think, is the temporal gulf revealed in the simultaneous appearance of present and past, a gulf that seems to entertain viewers. To draw ruins from the distant past closer to the gardens of today, or to send the present back to the bygone realm of ruins—such manipulation of temporal near and far engenders feelings of nostalgia, yearning, and sentimental transience. Both monumental ruins and gardens of ruins incorporate this overlap of near-time and far-time, and the gulf between the two. When placing artificially dilapidated temples, miniatures, and grottos—if not columns and statues taken from actual ruins—within geometrically designed gardens, the temporal gulf between these elements—between crumbling ruins and meticulously designed gardens—offers a nostalgic pleasure.
Walter Benjamin described the aesthetic of the Baroque as something akin to ruins upon which nature had worked its course. From medieval times the people of Europe were incapable of confronting nature directly, sensing it only in its traces found in ruins. They were unable to face nature without the intervening concept of ruins.
A bypass between mankind and reality was needed, and in order for ruins to play this function they had to be more than just worn-out bits of junk or scrap; they had to be vestigial aspects of some reality—collections of residual details. To introduce this bypass when examining reality is to adopt an almost photographic perspective. Photography transforms the world into residue, into ruins. Indeed, to compare Baroque aesthetics with ruins is perhaps really to speak of photographs. Did the Baroque aesthetic, well in advance of photography’s arrival, recognize that the world was not based on a harmonious, unified order but would instead morph into ruins that bring together traces of its warped, twisted, and disharmonious details?
Deteriorating ruins are also like music. It is the nature of sound to vanish into time the moment it is produced, and I think ruins, too—destined to decay—follow a similar process of disappearing that eliminates them completely from this world. Music is an art founded on a constant vanishing that cannot be stopped; as Eric Dolphy said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” Is it because photography is an art that freezes time that enables it to capture ruins? Ruins, like music, are unstoppable. If the vanishing process ever came to a halt, the ruins would no longer be ruins and the music would no longer be music. The very act of photographing ruins and affixing their image to photographic paper is, I think, pregnant with contradiction. Like music, perhaps photography is not so much a medium for expressing ruins as a form of ruins itself, at least insofar as it represents the world through traces of light. Do photographs, too, vanish like ruins?
Ruins occupy three temporal realms: a premonition of continuing future decay, their present state in the here and now, and the history of the broken past they embody. Resting on these three temporal foundations, ruins have what might be called a sense of time torn in three, and exist in a network of relationships among the three realms. Neither present nor future nor past, ruins are unable to settle in any single temporal realm. They exist, I think, in a temporal gulf between past, present, and future—in the gulf of relationships between different times. The value of ruins is not evident in their substance but determined instead by their ever-present multiplicity of temporal gulfs and the relationships among them. The value of the history of collapse embodied in ruins is probably only first revealed in their temporal gulf with the present, and then again in their relationship to the future—a future of continued decay. Are ruins not, perhaps, something suspended in the three realms of past, present, and future?
Photographs, too, do more than simply reproduce the past. A process of “dying” is inherent within them and they are, I think, a form of art perennially suspended in various aspects of time. “Dying” photographs, then, encompass the process of vanishing, and photography of ruins is perhaps not so much the art of fixing them in place for eternity as a kind of ruins itself. Photography, then, is not an art that stops time but one that introduces a variety of times—past, present, and future. If so, photographs are taken not to stop something but to ensure that it keeps moving. The process of vanishing is introduced into every subject ever captured on film. Didn’t Ken Domon say that the Buddhist statues he photographed were running? There are no still subjects; subjects are always moving. They are moving, I think, toward their own ultimate ruin and disappearance just as surely as iron or steel—but ruins and photographs both incorporate this kind of dynamic temporal process. Ruins are the process by which they have become ruins, and the process of moving inexorably toward further ruin and disappearance; they are never complete. Completed ruins would no longer exist—would have vanished—so any ruins that do appear before the naked eye are necessarily in process, in flux.
And yet, are twentieth-century urban ruins that lack such histories of collapse also imbued with this same kind of temporal dynamism? Although conforming to a Baroque aesthetic, the photographs of David Ohyama seem to begin from the position that such ruins are incapable of possessing this kind of history or process; his images of ruins are stripped of any such thing. Don’t they seem to accurately portray the nature of cities since the 1980s, flattened and homogenized in their every detail?
Does the past—or memory or history—even exist in cities since the twentieth century? I think they may be empty, timeless, vacant places in which there is only the present. What cities reduced to rubble by war suggest, I think, is that they have no memory and no history, and turn into something completely unlike the artificial ruins and dilapidated temples of the Baroque period, into ruins that are useless remnants of ahistorical structures. Urban redevelopment efforts during the 1980s economic bubble demonstrated that urban ruins are meaningless ruins, lacking even a glimmer of history—just empty heaps of rubbish. In them there is no nostalgia, no memory. In townscapes torn down overnight and replaced with empty lots, it is impossible to feel the slow process of gradual collapse that ruins once embodied.
There is no such process in the photographs of David Ohyama, and none of the history of collapse that we expect of ruins. Factory equipment is simply exposed to the midday sun like so much junk with neither admiration nor wonder. The ruins of the past were stamped with memory, with history, but Ohyama’s subjects seem to lack such memory. Ruins devoid of memory have no past to compare with the present, so no temporal gulf emerges from the contrast. As a result, the ruins Ohyama photographs are unable to express their value as ruins. Not ruins, then, they appear as nothing but piles of junk. Lacking history, these piles of junk present something oddly twisted when they pretend to the aesthetic of Baroque-style ruins. This is, perhaps, exactly the sort of kitschiness you would expect of remains that adopt the trappings of a given aesthetic despite lacking memory or history or past. The more precise the portrayal through Ohyama’s Leica lens, the more attention is drawn to the dubiousness of a harmonious, undistorted Baroque bereft of stand-out details.
To those of us who now see images of large-scale ruins every day in newspaper and video coverage of ethnic and religious conflicts around the world, the classical ruins of the Sacro Bosco (“sacred grove”) in the Baroque-style Gardens of Bomarzo surely seem merely kitsch; their aesthetic no longer makes a deep impression when we see images daily of the ongoing destruction of ancient ruins by Islamic State. Ours is a time when what remains behind after the destruction of ancient ruins seems indistinguishable from an ordinary demolition site. Ruins once rich with a fully developed sense of time suddenly find time abolished and are turned into empty lots not unlike the barren, vacant spaces of Tokyo during the economic bubble.
Ohyama’s photographs are bereft of time. The equipment and parts that remain after the factory has burned down emerge from them like Baroque sculpture, but without the particular element of time that sets Baroque ruins apart. There is no sense of the history or memory behind either factory or equipment. This burned-out junk with neither history nor memory sculpturally mimics, and seems to mock, Baroque aesthetics. The sculptures in the castle gardens of Ludwig II, too, offer a surprisingly barren aesthetic.
The barren, vacant ruins that Ohyama shoots suggest the same sort of emptiness found in the Zeppelin Field designed by Albert Speer. Built in accordance with Speer’s “law of ruins,” the Zeppelin Field has neither past nor memory. Renouncing the temporal, it existed only to perfect itself as ruins; ruins no longer required history or memory. By imitating ruins, it sought not to disappear but to gain ever-lasting life. Conveying no sense of the flow of time, the Zeppelin Field sought, by nullifying time, to give Germany eternal life as a Thousand Year Reich. The ultimate aim of Speer’s “law of ruins” appears to have been to do away with the aim of ruins: death. Intending to anticipate a future death—that is, an inevitable disappearance from this world—the “law of ruins” sought immortality by simulating death and disappearance. This stands in opposition to Baroque ruins, which aimed for a death marked by animal decomposition. Speer’s ruins that would never collapse are reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s corpse, generously infused with the formaldehyde of immortality. Ever alive and smooth of face, isn’t this corpse exactly like the utterly flattened and homogenous Tokyo suburbs of Minami Osawa and Tama Center? Ruins of the post-bubble period, like those that Ohyama shoots, lose every last bit of detail and secure, in their harmonious composition, a zombie-like undead immortality.
Urban planning during the bubble period transformed Tachikawa, the most squalid part of western Tokyo’s suburban Santama region, into department stores, apartment complexes, four-lane roads, and parking lots. I still have no idea what they were trying to accomplish through such an all-out, Zeppelin Field-like flattening of the area, but this sort of thing is emblematic of post-bubble Japan. And isn’t a flattened Tachikawa, like the Zeppelin Field, a kind of ruins lacking time? It is a collection of details of which all traces have been lost, ruins of the present alone, blank ruins that fail even to rise to the level of junk or wreckage. Ruins for the sake of ruins? More like parody. Something that was once a messy aggregation possessed of a variety of temporal states was transformed into empty, Zeppelin Field-like ruins, its bumpy details leveled out into something smooth and uniform.
Where Baroque art was characterized by the oddity and disharmony of its details, Ohyama’s photographs are uncannily harmonious. The beautiful thing about them, I think, is the way he has used digital techniques to thoroughly homogenize everything, stripping the Baroque of its white noise and creating the new aesthetic of a harmonized Baroque. Eliminating the temporal gulf on which Baroque-style ruins were grounded, he has invested his own with a timelessness in which the present is all there is. The photographs of David Ohyama—collections of homogenized details of which all traces have disappeared—seem somehow in sync with the spectacle of today’s cities.
Osamu Kanemura, Photographer
* English Translation: Hart Larrabee