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. ƒ

ALE­JAN­DRO CAMPINS − Cuerpo Tol­er­ante / Photo: P.D. Rearick / Cour­tesy Sean Kelly, New York Asc­eta / Photo: P.D. Rearick / Cour­tesy Sean Kelly, New York

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

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