Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
Solis is author of 'Underground New York: The Anatomy of a City' (more here), but today she showed Postopolis! an extraordinary series of photographs from more recent work, which essentially comprise a form of imagining new landscapes amidst images of deterioration and decay.
Entering abandoned buildings with her camera, Solis seeks out spaces and objects which have long since been forgotten or discarded, such that the natural processes of decay have been left to carry out their work unhindered. So we see the process of deterioration that we're familiar with but, as she puts it, "we don't have process that is normally there with that" i.e. presence of rats, or attempts at clearing of debris, looming bulldozers etc. These are entirely abandoned spaces, either forgotten or neglected on purpose.
So the decay makes new landscapes out of old objects. Solis indicates close-ups of objects which are impossible to place, waving her hand over the image to point out the new features, which seem to take the form of a beach setting, with a lake, pebbles, some kind of breakwater. Of course it's none of these things, but as Solis points out, this degradation presents a form of history, which is perhaps more interesting than the natural landscape, given this layer of time built-in to these micro-landscapes.
She shows the "small landscapes that could be found on a bed", in a hospital that's been abandoned for about 15 years. In another room, ceiling tiles have dropped down to form an entirely new terrain, a form of "mountainscape with geological strata, a canyon."
Inside a gigantic warehouse in Detroit, paper falls in on itself, to create small environments. She says you want to "explore the small habitat, imagine who might live there." As she puts it, "I'm really a big fan of waste. To me, it just means history". We see patterns emerging in a discarded white shoe. Elsewhere, the top of a bed reveals possible cave formations. Elsewhere still, a board with a Disney Snow White image slowly fading away is more interesting still, as it contains a story embedded within it. This new darker context "opens it up more to interpretation."
Hospitals have been the focus of her recent work, and Solis shows us some beautiful photographs of deserted hospitals: a New Jersey mental hospital; a children's hospital in Maryland. See her projects with Suzy Poling, 'Fantastic Degradation' and 'Funeral Play' for more. (She notes one of last great hospitals burnt down last night - the Hudson River State Hospital, which had been standing since 1871 (pictures and thread here; news story here). She thinks this is just explorers being careless, rather than arson.)
Solis is asked about the conditions in the buildings she works in. Replying that she sometimes has to wear a respirator, she says that many of buildings have a lot of mould in them, and an unbelievably bad smell. She can get incredibly bad headaches after visiting these buildings. Geoff asks about the desire to garner narrative from these apparently dead spaces, and her background in fiction emerges. Earlier on, she was just looking for interesting spaces where you could play hide and seek. The desire to find new spaces is always there in the urban explorers movement, she says: "Once you've seen one kind of abandoned house, you might not go back. They tend to be very similar." It's clear this runs beyond hide-and-seek, or mere exploring though. She helps run Ars Subterranea: The Society for Creative Preservation in New York, which is far more concerned with "constructing narratives around the city's forgotten relics."
There's a question about other mythological deserted spaces in New York, and a discussion breaks out between Solis and the audience about the famous Beach subway; a block-long pneumatic tube. It's long been disassembled, but some think it's still there. (More here, here and here.) There's also a famous waiting room, built to convince people that the subway was a good idea. Somewhere around Warren and Reed, around Broadway. The waiting room was decked out in velvet curtains. Solis thinks that might still be there. It was used as a shooting gallery for a while, but the building on top burnt down, and something else was rebuiilt on top. That could be still there, she says ...
We've seen an interesting connection emerging this week between those studying dereliction and demolition from very different angles – Solis, Byles, Janz – and the uninhabited infrastructure photographed by Stanley Greenberg. Julia Solis is somewhere in-between the concerns of Janz and Byles, perhaps – post-inhabitation and pre-demolition – and her photography stretches our perception of landscape, history and the life-span of buildings.