preserving decay: the photography of jessica rowe and suzy poling.
Both Jessica Rowe and Suzy Poling are curious about decay and renewal, whether of the natural kind (Poling’s mineral deposits, geysers, and algae blooms) or the human type (Rowe’s Remnant series) or when the human and natural collide (Poling’s two series, Dead Amusements and Wonderland of Decay; Rowe’s series, Temporary America).
But collide isn’t quite the correct word here. The more accurate word would be collapse—and slow collapse at that. For these are photographs about stagnation, torpor, and the possibility of regeneration at a snail’s pace. The more you watch these photographs, the more, no matter how lifeless and motionless they appear at first, they seethe, melt, fester, corrode, disintegrate, spoil, mildew, crumble, and perhaps regenerate.
You would think that ghosts murmur and whisper among the leftover house foundations, boats left to rot, abandoned mental hospitals, former amusement parks, and other detritus in these photographs, that a retrospective quality in the images would encourage a kind of nostalgia for old things. But there is little longing for the past here. Much more present is a focus on the future. And the future looks a lot like what is present. Which is not about what is missing, but what is there, so stubbornly and irreparably there. These landscapes of architectural ruin and natural progression are neither really ruined nor truly progressing, they just are.
Though these photographs owe something to the theories of entropy put forward by Robert Smithson—and though they create a certain kind of earthwork in the click of the camera lens—this isn’t the famous entropy that Smithson wrote about in his essay on the “new monuments” of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and others. Those works, Smithson argued, eliminated the sense of time’s decay and natural devolution by spatially focusing on the inorganic, the plastic, the non-carbonic materials of life. They were monuments that, Smithson wrote, “cause us to forget the future.”
Inside the spaces of Rowe’s and Poling’s photographs, there’s simply too much dust, goo, rot, muck, and bones to forget the future. History accelerates without brakes—or breaks. Time’s onslaught is not rendered inactive. But it is, like Smithson observed, perhaps on its way to an all-encompassing sameness. The images return repeatedly, endlessly, entropically, back to the ruins, the fragments, the wreckage, the disorder, from whence they came. Until, one imagines, there is nothing really left to return to or to return from. There is only what remains and what never ceases frozen vividly.