CITY OF QUEEN ANNE’S LACE
Attempts a Deep Study of Detroit in Transition
It is springtime in Detroit, so naturally I am in my garden. Michigan is a place where the seasons make themselves known, it was the place where I finally came to understand the meaning of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (better known to some as the lyrics of the seminal song by The Byrds, composed by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, Turn! Turn! Turn!):
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap; A time to kill, a time to heal; a time to laugh, a time to weep; A time to build up, a time to break down; a time to dance, a time to mourn; A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together; A time of love, a time of hate; a time of war, a time of peace; A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing; A time to gain, a time to lose; a time to rend, a time to sew; A time for love, and a time for hate.
When you live in a place ruled by the shifting whims of nature, you learn to adjust to forces that exist beyond human control. In this sense, Detroit was an unlikely birthplace for the industrial era, with its goal of keeping automobiles rolling off the assembly line in a precisely timed cadence. The interplay and conflict between nature and industry is fundamental to Detroit’s psyche, and it is played out within the current landscape in fields where once buildings stood, the shattered ruins of formerly highproduction industrial facilities.
This sense of emptiness, of vestigial civilization, of visceral pushback against the ravages of the anthropocentric period, is very well captured in City of Queen Anne’s Lace, a two-person exhibit at Wasserman Projects in Detroit, featuring two Cuban artists, José Yaque and Alejandro Campins, and curated by Rafael DiazCasas. Both artists and the curator spent a long time in Detroit to develop and execute the project as guests of Wasserman Projects, and sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Cuban Art Fund.
The founder of Wasserman Projects, Gary Wasserman, had met Campins in Havana, amidst the preparation for the Biennial held in 2015. Wasserman was working on a lecture in which he drew a parallel between Detroit and Havana.
“There are in fact both similarities and differences,” said Wasserman, in an email interview with Art OnCuba. “Both cities have experienced profound changes since the early 1960s.
Both Havana and Detroit underwent abrupt social and economic decline as their fundamental institutions were challenged with intractable problems. However since then the solutions to similar problems have been quite different... While Detroit emptied and spread, Cubans had no place to go, and in fact the government had to settle farmers in Havana to fill the spaces. Both cities deteriorated, but the experience of dilapidation as seen by these artists is very different. Where we see failure in the dilapidation, these artists see opportunity. It seemed intriguing to bring them to Detroit for their perspective.”
This exhibit captures a common experience among relative newcomers to Detroit—the sheer scale of empty spaces, the profound eeriness of the evidence of capitalism in precipitous decline. To those more accustomed to cities with a functioning infrastructure, the first impression of Detroit is like that of a ghost town. For many artists, it feels like a place full of potential. For a particular strain of Detroit artists—one might argue, the definitive quality of a “Detroit” artist—what they feel is a real craving to salvage these ruins and once again harness their potential as materials.
In this sense, Yaque is a quintessential “Detroit” artist.
The centerpiece of City of Queen Anne’s Lace is a massive installation by Yaque, Autochthonous Soil (2017)—a freestanding sculpture that creates a metaphoric portrait of Detroit by creating layers of geological strata out of materials salvaged by the artist from abandoned building sites around the city.
The deepest layer, at floor level, is a foundation of hard grey earth and rocks; next the piece gradates into reddish clay and automotive junk; a deep layer of charred wood multifariously interspersed with bright dashes of garbage, clothes, and other discarded items; a dense and highly imaginative section of topsoil, supporting a crown of green and weedy plants that spread close to the rafters of Wasserman’s hangar-like main gallery. The installation towers over the viewers at the central gallery, providing a 360-degree view of its crude and irregular contents. Turn! Turn! Turn!
Although Yaque is known for making pieces of this nature in other cities, this one feels uncannily in place in Detroit, which has placed him at the same level of successful artists like Scott Hocking, who has made a name for himself on his thriving practice of transforming materials in abandoned spaces into mysterious and mythological structures. Yaque’s work feels more like a research related to nature itself—there is a sense of excavation, study, anthropological survey. This is a common thread in his larger material structures, which include the 2009-2014 series, Tumba abierta (Open grave)—a kind of diverse specimen collection featuring 24 water tanks, 576 glass bottles, water, and plant residues. As the title suggests, Yaque views these objects as artifacts that come from something dead or departed, and this notion is echoed in the mixed media works on paper that go together with his piece de resistance, in which the subject-matter are austere pencil-rendered portraits of Detroit houses, perched precariously on a thick horizon line of dripping black ink.
The theme is also reflected in Campins’ works, some halfdozen large-scale oil paintings of abstract landscapes that are nonetheless easily identifiable to someone familiar with the less known surroundings of eastside Detroit. The buildings are outlined by simple lines, sometimes fading into nothingness. The palette is predominantly grungy yellows, whites, and ashy grays. The brightest spots, often the points of the compositional focus, are billboards or signs without any text. The mood is bleak, melancholic.
On a formal level, these works are satisfying. Yaque’s work is stirring for scale and impact alone; Campins is achingly formal and restrained in his compositions, which evokes a sense of wistfulness and longing. Yaque’s use of the word “autochthonous,” which refers to something native and noncolonial, is precisely a fitting term for Detroit’s current identity crisis, even though the prefix “auto” has a double meaning.
But as a reflection of Detroit, City of Queen Anne’s Lace falls into a common trap for newcomers to the landscape: the misapprehension of where Detroit’s true potential lies.
Campins’ and Yaque’s mutual gaze does not fall upon the dynamic aspects of our city, but it serves very well to capture a once-static and now rapidly-fading image of abandoned Detroit. This is perhaps a timely moment for such reflections, as Detroit seems poised for breathtaking change…
Yaque, Campins, and DiazCasas are not the first to see Detroit’s fallout as inspiring, rather than desperate. They are not the first to muse poetically on the terrible beauty there is in decay. But like many first impressions, to become captivated by Detroit’s emptiness, its sprawling dilapidation is no less shallow than any other kind of superficial attraction. The materials in Yaque’s core sample, which visually simulate the kind of strata that takes millennia to produce, just took, at the most, 60 years to be formed. Both artists have eluded Detroit’s most critical feature: its people.
Detroit is not a ghost town, or a place filled with zombies shambling through the wasteland. To focus on Detroit’s ruins is to see it as a place that crumbled over a half-century of forced isolation, rather than as a place that has triumphed in spite of it. One would expect that denizens of Cuba, who have experienced a similar kind of politically-motivated siege, might identify with that. In the face of failed infrastructure, crushing racism, and an economic drought that lasted many a season, Detroiters shook themselves awake, and dug in deeper. The show’s title, City of Queen Anne’s Lace, which is the flowering cycle of the biennial wild carrot and a common sight among Detroit’s untended open spaces, is a nod to the exhibition’s ambition of capturing something of life on the ground in Detroit.
“The fields of Queen Anne’s Lace that overtake and inhabit the city can be thought of as a temporary stage,” said DiazCasas in the exhibition’s catalog essay, “one with the potential to spawn new growths of life. Campins’ and Yaque’s mutual gaze encompasses a society in change.”
It seems to me that this is not so. Like almost any person who really seeks to take in Detroit with eyes wide open, these artists ask the inevitable question: what happened here? If one spends more time in Detroit, one slowly gets a sense that these places are anything but vacant, only slow to reveal their secrets. These fields are home to gloriously beautiful pheasants, these empty lots become community gardens and apple orchards in the spring, these abandoned buildings become canvases, and these signs still show traces of decades-old hand painting. Queen Anne’s Lace becomes wild carrots, carrots become flowers, and it all goes back to the earth, eventually. Turn! Turn! Turn!
Campins’ and Yaque’s mutual gaze does not fall upon the dynamic aspects of our city, but it serves very well to capture a once-static and now rapidly-fading image of abandoned Detroit. This is perhaps a timely moment for such reflections, as Detroit seems poised for breathtaking change, indeed, perhaps foretelling the loss of this quietness, this emptiness, this potential that has attracted so many. Will the next season bring a new uprising? Carrots? Flowers? Water wars? We turn to it, together.
City of Queen Anne’s Lace at Wasserman Projects Installation view / Photo: P.D. Rearick Work by Campins courtesy Sean Kelly, New York Work by Yaque courtesy Galleria Continua › On the front: JOSÉ EDUARDO YAQUE Autochthonous Soil, 2017