The Dead Places
The Visual Delicacy of Decay
Wed Mar 21, 2012, 7:00 PM
It’s easy to think of art in terms of what is instantly pleasing to the eye, artworks which
evoke a feeling of joy and hopefulness and blissful peacefulness or ecstatic exultation.
This is the consideration of art as something that helps propel us forward through life – to out future great
deeds, our career victories, or dreams of coming big events. But there is a peak to every life. At some point all
people, and all places, and even all ideas have to begin the inevitable decline that is the other balancing half of a lifetime.
There is a special beauty to be found in the representation of this less obviously attractive part of the evolutionary
process of living and being and dying. There is even a certain sense of righteousness when this less-serviced end of art’s
spectrum makes its presence known, fighting for its rightful place against the absolute inundation of joyful “the best is
yet to come” art that has become such a smothering façade (mostly because of television and commercialism in general incessantly
selling, selling, selling the promise of perfection on physical, emotional, sexual and financial status). But the art of
decay persists, the flipside of the dominating happy façade.
We are drawn to portraits of aging faces, in paintings or photographs, and they compel us to try to read between
the lines of weathered and withered faces, making us wonder at the many life experiences that must have been experienced
by someone with so many years marked by such deep lines impressed into an aging face. Likewise, there is also something
that transfixes us at the sight and contemplation of a dying or dead town, or a factory, or even a long disused cemetery.
There is something even more powerfully effecting upon us about not just a single life in the process of departing our world,
but in entire communities of beings taking leave, with only the shells of their now abandoned daily lives left as evidence that
they once lived, loved, worked and thrived in a certain place... once upon a time. There is an instinctive mourning for not only
ourselves and our inevitable passing, but for the inevitable slow vanishing of our entire way of life.
It is the balance ultimately that is key to understanding our fascination with depictions of life’s corruption and decay.
From zombie movies to portraits of once glamorous and impossibly beautiful 1930's movie stars – it’s the equaling out, aesthetically
and spiritually, that attracts us.
All begins with the miracle of birth and a climb toward some vague idea of our “best us” – onto the sudden realization that
we’ve somehow passed the peak of whatever could have been and facing existence on the “other side.” Now it’s not the dreams of
youth that have come before, but the mystery of existence and after-existence as death’s door approaches.
For some artists, thankfully, this is not a cause for decades of panic and despair, but a call for finding the same sort of
“answering” or “balancing” beauty to be captured in the autumn and winter of people, places and things, the complementary stuff
of the yin and yang of existence that is just as valuable and just as enlightening as the previously captured moments of all of
those springs and summers.
Questions for the Reader
Does the contemplation of photographs or paintings of abandoned buildings bring you a sense of “oneness” or “wholeness” in
life? Or does this art sadden and depress you?
What thoughts and feelings do you have when you see a photograph or watch a movie featuring a beautiful and attractive 20-something
actor or actress – and then you see a photograph of that person as they look today, aged 80 or 90?
When viewing artworks centered on “decay,” do you think the artist is trying to “bring you down” or depress you or trying to
make you feel bad about being happy in a world of sorrows and our own impending deaths? Or do you think most artists are trying
to explore the poignant aspects of the cycles of life, and the ultimate “leveling” of all things? Could the artist be trying to
bring you a “peaceful” feeling about life and eternity?
Do you prefer to surround yourself with art that is only happy and joy-inspiring? Or do you prefer a balance in your artful
things between the happy and the angst-provoking, even the “remindful despairing?”