Ruins and Civilization

By Amy Huei Hua Cheng

The exhibition “Ruins and Civilization” juxtaposes opposing images of historical process: decline and progress, death and continuation. The word “ruins” is used to suggest the processes experienced by people in time, as well as to question and explore the meaning of the existence of established civilizations. In the exhibition, the concept of “ruins” not only represents memory and its traces in space, but also includes all things visible and invisible that are forgotten, gradually declining and dying, and things disappearing that shape our subjectivity and consciousness. The German thinker Walter Benjamin regarded man’s thoughts and experience as “ruins”, a negative force and process of thinking that would lead to a new vision and a new life. Thus, the theme of the exhibition “Ruins and Civilization” is not just to explore the meaning of “the past” for progress, but also to make more profound observations of the time and space we are in based on a dialectic of the fragments of history and memory. The dialectic between ruins and civilization in terms of their imagery and literal meaning is constant and includes both the past and the future. The relation between them can be seen in terms of an allegorical passage from Benjamin’s One-Way Street: “…For only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be recalled with impunity. This further side of dream is only attainable through a cleansing analogous to washing yet totally different.”

“Ruins” are more than the spatial expression of the past – such as a run-down buildings. They also stand for all events, thinking and cultural phenomena that have taken place during the progress of civilization. As the opposite of “progress” and representing outdated changes that have been absorbed or discarded by progressive ideas, “ruins” co-exist with the contemporary new civilization. “Ruins” have a special appeal with regard to the “temporal process”. By placing them beside “progress”, we are seeing innovation and development in terms of death and decline, and vice versa. But instead of representing a dualist view of the world, it is an attempt to broaden our vision in order to understand the symbiosis between the two opposites, and to extend it to the understanding of mainstream and non-mainstream, tradition and modern, death and evolution, or even to discover the invisible political intentions and human nature behind such relations. Such approach is similar to that of French historian Michel Foucault, who used the existing historical framework to trace and explore the underlying forces that shape historical development. Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge provides us with a method to see the “invisible” of history. Similarly, we try to understand the forces behind the progress of civilization from the “ruins” that symbolize death. This gives us an opportunity to reflect from the opposite side. To quote the poetry of Chinese exile poet Beidao: “Death always means looking at a picture from the reverse side”.

Based on the above points of view, “Ruins and Civilization” attempts to demonstrate how different values in the age of globalization manifest themselves, grow and decline, clash or give way. Shown in fragments and not in any chronological order, images of civilization seen from multiple perspectives presented simultaneously explore the revelation of man’s collective (sub)consciousness in the gaps of different time and space. This kind of presentation, reminiscent of Benjamin’s philosophy of “ruins”, cuts off sections from infinite time and space as structures that can reveal the present and the future. Just as Benjamin stressed the “fleeting nature” and “fragmentariness” of memory, ruins are evoked by subjective experience at specific moments and have the ability of transcending time and delivering powerful omens. Through these omens, the meaning of historical processes is revealed in life, thoughts and even concrete spatial architecture. In interpreting Benjamin, American cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote: “This is what makes it possible to find meaning in one’s own life, in ‘the dead occurrences of the past which are euphemistically known as experience.’ Only because the past is dead is one able to read it. Only because history is fetishized in physical objects can one understand it.”

“Ruins and Civilization” presents the work of seven Taiwanese and Canadian artists. Through their observations of the development of civilization – such as the changes in people’s life experience, the process of the transmission of culture and tradition and the place of peripheral culture, their works piece together a picture of contemporary collective life and give certain insights into the development of civilization. This exhibition hopes to adopt “traversing” as a physical and mental approach. However, as Sontag describes, to do so “is not trying to recover his past but to understand it: to condense it into its spatial forms, its premonitory structures.” As a result, the “present” is more broadly included in the course of time, so that memory and experience become paths to the future. During this process, we might be able to recover the forgotten and neglected cultural sources and endow them with additional meaning.

“Knowledge about death is the key.” With this key, we can traverse civilization and open the door to the unknown.

Yao Jui-chung and Sylvia Borda

Transcending geographical boundaries, Yao Jui-chung’s Ruins of Taiwan and Sylvia Borda’s Capital Cities, two black-and-white photography works, use the camera to capture certain details of contemporary living space and juxtapose these images to create a panoramic view. Yao photographed over 100 abandoned buildings in different parts of Taiwan, while Borda took over 100 photos of the underground interchange stations in London, Tokyo and Taipei. These individual images seem like islands floating on the ocean of memory. When seen in juxtaposition, they collectively (and perhaps comprehensively) represent a certain section of contemporary society, and the individual sites are united in order to understand history and civilization. These two works are not just formally analogous. Both artists have spent years sampling and researching specific architectural spaces.

Yao Jui-chung’s work has long been related to his self-styled role as a “topographer of historical space”. He frequently takes his camera to a historical site and records the different faces of life with photography combined with action. In the series Ruins of Taiwan, he not only documents traces of the past in images, but also acts like a “flâneur” who traverses the civilized jungle. Through physical intervention and interpretation, he links the ruins he photographs with situations in contemporary life. What Yao photographs are traces of decay in the history of Taiwan’s modernization. These spatial structures rendered obsolete by modern development include buildings abandoned due to urbanization, homes destroyed by external forces, factories left vacant under the impact of the economy and the market, entertainment parks out-dated and forgotten, as well as temples and statues of gods deserted and lost in the wilderness. These images of ruins are not nostalgic. Seen as a whole, they form a landscape of cities and countryside informed with the author’s point of view. The beauty of the patches of light and shadow reminds one of the traces of civilization in the crumbling walls eroded by time: the movement of people and the changing environment, the conflict between folk traditions and modern values, and the contemporary ruins created by economic transformations… Seen through the camera lens, these traces give an indication of what is to come. In his book Roam the Ruins of Taiwan, Yao wrote poetically: “… All things shall become the ruins of the future. All images shall ultimately fade. But I’d rather believe that photographs are more than just witnesses of death, that they also bring the hope of rebirth and represent the mysterious calls of time and space.”

What can the fate of civilization tell us? Since 1998, Borda has photographed a series of interchange train stations in capital cities. By capturing the characteristics of spatial structures, she explores how architecture, transport and economic development redefine boundaries and the identity of city dwellers, as well as the relationship between the development of communication lines and history. Initially she chose London and Tokyo, which have a special place in the history of global modernization, being the first two cities in the East and West to be modernized. She photographed London’s Docklands line and Tokyo’s Yamanote line, the busiest lines in both cities responsible for transporting commuters from the suburbs to the city centre. The major goal of these two communication lines is to promote the efficiency and development of the economy.

With enhanced transport efficiency, Borda is able to travel rapidly round the world. With each trip, she traced the background of the modernization of Tokyo and London and the links between them. In late 19th century, Emperor Meiji of Japan commissioned British and German engineers to build a railway system for Tokyo. They used the European building structure. London’s Docklands was the first district to have steam engine and also Britain’s centre for exporting steel to the East. The historical background behind these two lines of communication reveals the origin and dynamic of east-west cultural exchange starting from the late 19th century. Since then, the development of lines of communication in different parts of the world has influenced the formation of different cultures and cities.

In addition to London and Tokyo, Borda photographed Taipei’s MRT station as a continuation of the series. Taipei’s underground was developed in the 1990s. It followed in the footsteps of underground systems in more advanced cities and is still gradually expanding. It is basically modeled on the systems of Western Europe and North America. In this work, viewers will be struck by another feature: the homogenization of the world’s urban architecture, and how modern people rely on similar signs to direct their movement. The homogenization of global urban life suggests the sharing of a common industrial history and cross-cultural background. It even hints at the operation of multinational capitalism behind modern civilization. As a result of the photographic angles chosen by Borda (she tried to avoid identifiable landmarks nearby or linguistic signs), the architecture and symbols are so similar that viewers may not be able to tell at once whether the photographs were taken in the train stations of Tokyo, London or Taipei. Borda created freeze frames out of these spaces with people moving. The metallic sheen of the architectural elements reflects the coldness of modern civilization. People stream along and pass one another briefly. The coldness of the images eloquently expresses the alienation in urban life. The British critic Elina Middleton-Lajudie commented: “Through this body of work you are drawn to analyse the scenes presented in the same way as you are drawn to the various mirrors within the photographs. They beg to be looked at and require that the viewer engage with Borda’s own exploration of meaning beneath the ambiguity of signs which are found in urban contexts.”

Stan Douglas and Yuan Goang-Ming

Comparing Yao Jui-chung’s work with Borda’s photographs, we see the process of acceleration of the pace of life under modern civilization, as well as the historical “burdens” discarded or used up due to progress. The ruins photographed by Yao represent decayed time and space. Unless they are recycled and reused, they are nothing but bygone memories. Nevertheless, there are many more declining peripheral areas and histories in our lives.

Every Building on 100 West Hastings photographed by Stan Douglas takes a deep look at the brink of society. Douglas’ work deals with the dark and shady sides of life. Using video and photography to delve into time, space, language and historical narrative, he explores the ambiguous zone between reality and fiction and between mainstream and fringe, digs into the collective consciousness under historical appearances and touches the internal structures of the workings of society.

In the photographic work Every Building on 100 West Hastings, Douglas photographed the architecture and street scenes of West Hastings in Vancouver, Canada in a dramatic manner: using the kind of lighting employed on film sets and specially arranged scenes empty of people (this work consists of 21 individual photographs). Situated on the east side of downtown Vancouver, this block represents a dividing line between two kinds of values in the city. To its west is the area of rapidly developing and expensive commercial buildings, shopping centres and the area of white collar activity, while the area to its east is known as “hell’s gate” – Vancouver’s notorious East Side. Once prosperous in the 50s, this area has declined following economic restructuring and the city’s expansion to the southwestern side. Since then, it has degenerated into an anarchic area of drugs and prostitution, and has become the most lawless and poorest district in Vancouver.

Compared with the tame middle-class scene, Vancouver’s East Side has a peculiar energy that comes from the grassroots. Set against the nearby high-class commercial buildings, the area populated by vagrants and pests seems to be a satire on civilization and progress. Douglas treated this block in a highly poetic manner. Emptied of the drug dealers, hookers and vagrants that hang around the street, the quiet images highlight the historical decline: the houses that have no buyers, the run down buildings, the neon lights of brothels, ghostly shopfronts as well as iron gratings for preventing robbery… This area “beyond civilization” gradually fell into ruin and was discarded by civilization. The types that linger here are the rag pickers of civilization. They live lawlessly and gather the ashes of history. As the topology of a place, Douglas’ Hastings shows the emergence of artificial boundaries and class in society, as well as their changing relationship.

The urban scenes empty of people have a deserted charm. Rid of human presence (subjects), a place generates the ability of speaking for itself and exists objectively detached from time and space. Yuan Goang-Ming’s work City Disqualified also possesses this kind of power.

In his projection work City Disqualified, Yuan scanned a two-dimensional photograph and then projects it with a projector, creating images of a city that move like film images. After taking over 100 photographs of the Ximen shopping district of Taipei, he input them into the computer for alteration. Superimposing them on one another, he compressed them on a flat image. Then he erased the people and cars one by one, finally producing the image of a deserted city. This work echoes Douglas’ work in a subtle way. Douglas uses lighting and sets to isolate Vancouver’s West Hastings from the bustling city, so that viewers can see its history and culture more clearly and objectively. As a result, history can be retold from another perspective. Since human activity has been erased, Yuan Goang-Ming’s Ximen District in Taipei resembles an urban stage without sound. The open shops and the absence of people and cars highlight an artificial living space dominated by commercial capital and advertising images, and a road system regulating people’s movement.

The Ximen shopping district comprises the old Ximen district where Taipei’s early population was concentrated. Since the 20s, while Taiwan was still under Japanese occupation (1895-1945), this area had been a public entertainment centre. Its heyday was in the 50s, when it was filled with shopping centres, cinemas, offices and department stores. Like the Hastings area of Vancouver, the Ximen District rapidly declined with the urban development to the east, the dismantling of the famous Chung Hwa Shopping Centre in the early 90s and the construction of the Taipei underground system. It became the object of nostalgia of the older generation. However, under the intervention and planning of the city government, the Ximen District has been reborn as a new shopping area for young people and the meeting place of subcultures.

As Yao Jui-chung said, “All things shall become the ruins of the future.” Yuan Goang-Ming’s City Disqualified shows an empty Taipei in slow motion. The quiet movement is like a meditation on time and civilization. The emptiness enhances the imagination that the place was once bustling. Through digital synthesis, the deserted illusion makes the sense of time even more unreal. While viewers look at the images at a certain point in time, they are caught in their memory and the future they suggest. In the cold and apocalyptic space of extreme consumerism, there is no more human warmth.

Antonia Hirsch and Pravin Pillay

The progress of civilization and cultural transmission are seen as the result of the combination, transformation and mutation of a series of cultural genes. The world’s modernization has accelerated the process of “cultural hybridity”. If modernization is seen as “progress”, it more or less suggests Darwin’s theory of evolution and the application of the process of selection and the principle of “survival of the fittest” in cultural exchange. In this development, Third World countries have a heavier price to pay. They not only have to deal with economic, cultural and political domination, but also have to face the question of the survival of traditional values and their conflict with Western values. Through the internal evolutionary processes in cultural transmission, they have developed an awareness of the consequences of development, just as we understand the path of historical development in terms of our living space. Using poetic metaphors, Antonia Hirsch’s work Empire Line explores the political and economic relations between East and West since the colonial times. In this projection installation, she uses tea bags, a symbol of the East, to create a costume like those worn by aristocratic European women in the 19th century. The “high waist” style symbolic of the empire is used as a metaphor for its class domination and aggression, as well as the East-West interactions based on economic and material transactions since the days of imperialism.

In the video part, Hirsch walks slowly into the water wearing this specially made tea bag costume. The colour of tea gradually stains the water, suggesting economic expansion based on materialism: costume, fashion and products of trade. The images of Hirsch floating in the river are associated with the process of blending in the encounters between different cultures. The staining of the water by the tea bag costume (the expansion of the territory) reminds one of the delicate power relations between cultural transmission and economic expansion. Nevertheless, Hirsch‘s work has wider implications. Her movement in the water and the gradual colouring of the water around her are a metaphor for the fluidity and transmission of culture, as well as the interaction between man and his environment. As Canadian independent curator Peggy Gale interprets, “Tranquil movement and limpid colour are subtly arrested by the mysterious shadow of stain. The purity suggested by white gauziness and elegant form is now overlaid by something more dangerous; is this blood we see leaking into the water, or some other bodily fluid?” Gale’s interpretation further indicates the result of such power relations: “She has been immersed in a newly altered culture, her body itself coloured by the effects of her actions and experience.”

Pravin Pillay sees the interactions between people in the technological age from another perspective. Desire for Sale is a grey scale image with texts on a large advertising board, conveying an elusive message. In discussing how media/information shapes contemporary society, recent media culture scholars describe how images and information deprive people of their power of carrying out genuine communication. The real space and contact between the sender and receiver of a message have been deleted and replaced by the simulation and instantaneity of the media and virtual space (such as e-mail transmission). However, in the system of instant telecommunication, the society “spectacularized” by masses of transmitted messages and images is in fact subtly manipulated. While there is zero distance between people in virtual space, they become increasingly estranged from their surroundings in real life.

In The Vision Machine, French scholar Paul Virilio wrote: “In two hundred years the philosophical and scientific debate itself has thus similarly shifted from the question of the objectivity of mental images to the question of their reality. The problem, therefore, no longer has much to do with the mental images of consciousness alone. It is now essentially concerned with the instrumental virtual images of science and their paradoxical facticity.”

Pillay worked with the electronic transmission system. He scanned a family photo to create a computer file and sent it to someone in the photo through e-mail. After printing and scanning the image again, the recipient sent it back as an electronic file. Then Pillay would send the image to another person in the photo. The same process would repeat six times. In this process of “communication” with his family, the resolution of the image became lower and lower because of repeated printing and scanning, so that he ended up with a blurred image. Pillay then processed this image by superimposing a sentence repeatedly on it. Lastly, he enlarged and printed it and mounted it as an advertising billboard. Pillay’s work illustrates communication between people in a technological and commercial society. His project required that every family member who participated know how to use the computer, scanner and electronic network. This requirement already shows the prerequisite for communication between modern people. However, due to the limitations of the tools, the image loses its fidelity in instantaneous transmission. This process questions the genuineness of “communication” and implies the widening gap between people and the increasing impossibility of communication.

By using the form of advertising board, Pillay touches on the paradox of people being manipulated by information and images while obtaining such information and images, as in Virilio’s idea of “sightless vision” – the vast industry of perception penetrated by computer and mechanical control at any time and any place has been cut off from people’s own experience and physical ability and applied to achieve greater control. Pillay’s work also has an aura of mystery. While looking at this blurred image, the viewer can glimpse its internal secrets – the images of the family members emerging from the background and the partly legible text. This slim chance of recognition is just like the hesitant and vain attempts at communication between people in the contemporary age. Or it is as Yuan Goang-Ming expresses in City Disqualified – people’s spiritual existence and interactions will ultimately be replaced and deleted by technology and information, while the world without time difference in which we live is one big desert and illusory realm of civilization.

Chen Chieh-Jen

Ruins exist both in the physical world and in existential experience. Chen Chieh-Jen’s Image of an Absent Mind (from the Revolt in The Soul & Body series), a photograph altered by the computer, uses a surrealistic setting to express the double state of something that exists in both the physical as well as the internal world. The shock that he brings to viewers does not only come from the catastrophe and physical scars shown in the image, but also from his ability to express the spiritual and internal states of man visually. His work makes reference to history and civilization, and tries to explore something that cannot be represented – the mutilation and domination of the subject and the telling of one’s story by someone else. It also questions whether one is still conscious of one’s subjectivity in a state of “soullessness” and “speechlessness”. As the scholar Joyce C. H. Liu describes in her thesis “Chen Chieh-Jen’s Aesthetic of Horror and his Bodily Memories of History”: “This series of posed images illustrates the hidden violence of the establishment caused by what Chen Chieh-Jen refers to as ‘covered up and dismembered history’: in Image of an Absent Mind, the headless god is carried by two lame and blind believers in a wasteland of scattered corpses.”

In the desert of history and memory, two handicapped blind men are carrying a headless monster and seem to be eternal exiles beyond the boundaries of reason. Through physical pain, Chen breaks down rationality and uses a fragmentary, uncertain and destructive state of madness to show the struggle of the subjective consciousness between death and rebirth. He also uses the imagery of “flight” as the biggest metaphor for the chance of reversing fate. He juxtaposes different possibilities of reading in one image: the spiritual consciousness is struggling between the fate of domination and being dominated, while the displaced body parts, blindness and handicap suggest another consequence of history and civilization.

Chen Chieh-Jen’s use of the imagery of death and flight as a meditation on history and civilization is reminiscent of Benjamin’s interpretation of history based on Paul Klee’s work Angelus Novus: “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The works of the seven artists in the exhibition “Ruins and Civilization” put us in the storm described by Benjamin. It is from the perspective of his angel of history that we try to understand and explore the concept of ruins and civilization in this exhibition.

  1. Walter Benjamin, Reflections, Edited and with introduction by Peter Demetz, p.62.
  2. Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1980, p.126.
  3. Ibid., p.116.
  4. Quoted from the poetry of Chinese poet Beidao.
  5. Yao Jui-chung, Roam the Ruins of Taiwan, 2004, p.11.
  6. Elina Middleton-Lajudie, Transit:From Postmodernity to Supermodernity, June 2002 (Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art).
  7. Cf. Jeff Sommers and Nick Blomley, The Worst Block in Vancouver, in Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings, published by Contemporary Art Gallery and Arsenal Pulp, 2002, p.19.
  8. Peggy Gale, Empire Line, Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography in Toronto, 2001.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, British Film Institute, 1994, p.60.
  11. Joyce C. H. Liu, Chen Chieh-jen's Aesthetic of Horror and his Bodily Memories of History, 2001.
  12. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books Inc., 1969, pp.257~258.