Hospital Ruins: Rebecca Solnit

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

Rebecca Solnit helped me articulate some threads of Punk Archaeology in her essay “Abandon,” in A Field Guide of Getting Lost (New York, 2005, pp. 87-109). Solnit describes her own discovery of punk at the age of 15, “Punk rock had burst into my life with the force of revelation, though I cannot now call the revelation much more than a tempo and an insurrectionary intensity that matched the explosive pressure in my psyche.” Solnit’s revelation was more than a musical discovery, it was a shift in incorporating the city within the realms of the natural wilderness. Punk directed Solnit and thousands of other youngsters in the 1980s to connect the surrounding post-industrial decay and the inner self. After all, isn’t that one of culture’s primarily roles, to negotiate between exterior and interior worlds? In the 1990s, selected neighborhoods went into choreopraphed reinventions. New York got Dinseyfied and hipsters became just marketing demographic. Attention shifted from archaeological realism (a desire to see things as they are and adjust aesthetics accordingly) to historicist melancholy (a desire to relive earlier generations’ angst through self-fashioning). Such developments make the 1980s seem like a distinct cultural period, where punk and archaeology united.

Reading through Patti Smith’s memoir made me re-read Solnit’s essay (read tomorrow’s posting). There is one particular detail that unites the two experiences, namely the incorporation of hospital ruins into a search for meaning. Solnit begins her essay with an adventure that, in retrospect, seems like a classic punk pursuit, searching for abandoned buildings and seeking to incorporate them into aesthetic life through photography, music and film.

“The most beautiful thing in the abandoned hospital was the peeling paint. The place had been painted again and again in pastels, and in the years of its abandonment these layers flaked into lozenges and curled scrolls, a different color on each side. The flakes clung to the walls like papery bark and piled up like fallen leaves. I remember walking down one long corridor illuminated only by light from distant doorways. There the paint dangled from ceiling and walls in huge wafers, and my passing stirred the air enough that some came drifting down down in my wake. The movie we made there was was too grainy to show such delicate details, but I remember one passage in it where I was coming down such a corridor and the shafts of light behind me were so strong on either side of my neck that my head seemed at times to detach from my body and hover above it. I had become its haunting wraith.

“That was when I was twenty, half my life ago, and a boy my age made the most politely democratic proposition I ever received: would I like to make a move with him in the ruined hospital near my San Francisco home? I would, we did, and we spent the next six years together in amazing tranquility and stayed close for a few years thereafter… It was the early 1980s, and looking back I can see that it was a sort of golden age of ruins.

“Coming of age in the heyday of punk, it was clear we were living at the end of something–of modernism, of the American dream, of the industrial economy, of a certain kind of urbanism. The evidence was all around us in the ruins of cities. The Bronx was block after block, mile after mile of ruin, as were even some Manhattan neighborhoods, housing projects across the country were in a state of collapse, many of the shipping piers that had been key to San Francisco’s and New York’s economies were abandoned, as was San Francisco’s big Southern Pacific rail yard and its two most visible breweries. Vacant lots like missing teeth gave a rough grin to the streets we haunted. Ruin was everywhere, for cities had been abandoned by the rich, by politics, by a vision of the future. Urban ruins were the emblematic place for this era, the places that gave punk part of its aesthetic, and like most aesthetics this one contained an ethic, a worldview with a mandate on how to act, how to live.” (pp. 87-88)

The image at the top is a photo by Camilo Jose Vergara, who will be the subject of a post later this week. The photo, “Henry Horner Homes, 2051 W. Lake St., Chicago, 1995” was featured in Vergara’s recent Slate article, “American Ruins: Nature is Taking back These Buildings,” (Jan. 15, 2010).

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