The skyline of New York, like that of most other major cities in the contemporary world, is strewn with cranes hauling up bits and pieces of new construction. These new works command our attention as we go about our daily business, but when we are on vacation — when we travel to have experiences, to broaden our understanding of the world — we are as likely to spend time contemplating ruins as we are these cutting-edge marvels. "There is no more ironical and yet more soothing comment on human fate than the sight of ruins," the great critic Bernard Berenson wrote in "Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts" (1948). Something like that goes through our minds as we stand looking at the remains of the Forum in Rome, the empty tombs in Petra, the deserted Hopi buildings on Antelope Mesa, or staring down at what had been the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It is certainly our reaction to "Contemporary Ruins" by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the current exhibition of photographs at the Point of View Gallery.
The irony of which Berenson spoke is apparent when looking at "Centrale Electrique, Feste von der Goltz, Metz," a picture of the electrical generating equipment in an underground fortress in Lorraine, a region of France that is directly adjacent to Germany. This is a medium-format color photograph, 37 inches by 47 inches, like almost all the prints on display. It was taken with a 4-inch-by-5-inch Shen Hao view camera using Fuji 160S, a film specifically developed to be scanned and printed digitally. The tiles in the tunnel-like room are falling off the wall. The floor is covered with a reddish dust that appears to be rust. And the row of neatly aligned turbines is turning green, and white, and red as the various stages of aging affect the metal. This is a catacomb of the industrial age. The irony is in the contrast of this image of mechanical decay with the heroic photographs of similar equipment taken in the early decades of the 20th century by such artists as the German Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) or the American Charles Scheeler (1883-1965). Both of them were masters of Modernism, and took stylish pictures of industrial machinery when it was still a technological marvel and heralded a better world.
There are two photographs of ruined movie theaters, "Lower Auditorium, Proctor's Theater, Newark" and "Fabian Theater, Paterson." (None of the 16 pictures is dated, but all were taken since 2000.) These were pleasure palaces built in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system to convince the "common man" he was entitled to as plush a place of entertainment as royalty. Dark red paint and bits of gilding are still visible in both theaters, although the opulence is no deeper than the plaster that is crumbling off the walls. Whole sections of chairs have been removed because there is no one left to be seated and nothing left to see. The enormous empty spaces remind us that at one time huge crowds came together to watch movies, but the crowds deserted the theaters for the privacy and convenience of their own homes when television materialized. By and large, a ruin is what a building becomes when history is done with it.
There are five pictures from Detroit, perhaps the ruin capital of America. Detroit is a city that has been considerably diminished by bad governance. One of the most dramatic of the Detroit pictures is "Ballroom, Fort Wayne Hotel" in which the handling of light is particularly effective. Light is an important element in all the pictures, but especially when it is sunlight — evidence of the imperturbable sun reminds us of a temporal and spatial realm beyond human concerns of either construction or decay. In this picture, a shaft of light comes through the broken glass of a skylight in the middle of the ballroom; the dust in the air makes the shaft of light visible. The walls have been stripped to bare plaster, chunks of the ceiling are on the floor, and random pieces of furniture are strewn amid the debris. Behind the shaft of light is an empty stage where the band would have played when the hotel was open, and when Detroiters rented this room to host their celebrations.
Messrs. Marchand and Meffre are both young; the former was born in 1981 and the latter in 1987. They were both born and raised in the suburbs of Paris, both are self-taught, and they came together through their common interest in the ruins in and around Paris. Besides France and America, they have photographed ruins in Belgium, England, Spain, Italy, and Japan. There is probably no sense in asking why youth should be so taken with decay, except that it is a Romantic concern, and it is not unreasonable for those at the beginning of their own careers to be curious about how other things have ended. And in many instances, their collaboration results in works suffused with a melancholy beauty.
At 59 inches by 75 inches, "Eberswalde" is the largest print in the show, a picture taken inside the remains of a World War II airplane hangar in what was once East Germany. It is a vaulted steel structure like a Quonset hut, with most of the end and much of the roof missing. There is little difference now between inside and outside; brush has invaded the building and the floor is covered with the same snow that covers the woods outside. But the arc of the steel supports is still graceful, the blue-gray light of an overcast day gives the scene a quiet dignity, and, like any memento mori, it makes you think.
Until July 19 (638 W. 28th St., between Eleventh and Twelfth avenues, 212-967-3936).