A ruin is something that has to be seen. From Piranesi’s etchings of the remnants of ancient Rome, and the ruined castles of countless Romantic paintings, to the exclusion zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the ruin is a magnetic point that draws spectators to the end of times. Even in a state of despair and neglect, and especially in those places that retain some sense of past purpose, the melancholy of disaster radiates the imagination.
The image of the ruin presupposes the presence of a viewer, without whom there is no meaning: a ruin recorded is an act that reignites one of the most ancient symbols of Western civilization, sometimes in the awe inspiring sublimity of an entire civilization destroyed, as in the fantastic 19th century paintings of Thomas Cole, sometimes in the symbol of the broken column so popular in Victorian funerary sculpture, or subsumed into images of nature where mountains, trees and waterfalls stand in for the clutter of old world cities, such as in the operatic landscapes of painters such as Eugene von Guérard or Alfred Bierstadt.
And just as surely that the subject of the ruin imagines that there is someone outside the frame to observe it, god like, there is often a lonely figure within, not just to provide scale, but also to act as a stand in for the viewer. In Stella Chen’s Façade of Memory, the chimerical figure encased in an iron cage, like a horrific bodice, is an avatar for the figure in the future city. Chen has written about the now officially banned, but culturally persistent, Taiwanese custom of Tongyangxi where girls as young as six or seven were sold from their biological families into the families of men who would eventually marry them. The trauma of that separation has echoed down the generations just as surely as Taiwan built itself up from post war calamity into the contemporary nation state that it is today, the diaspora of its people taking those memories with them.
Projected onto silken screens, Chen’s image suggests the virtual, a figure born out of nothingness into the somethingness of light. The image is reminiscent of the imaginary holograms seen in the recent live action version of Ghost in the Shell , and glimpsed in the trailer for the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049 , towering yet weightless figures that would disappear as soon as power is lost. That sense of virtuality speaks to the contemporary sense of weightless history that surrounds us. It seems we imagine destruction and ruin in every pop culture movie, TV show and game, yet it has no impact – it disappears just as soon as we change channel. The virtual figures in these worlds have the same substance as Chen’s projection, yet Façade of Memory reminds us of the cost of real past actions just as surely as the slow leak of abandoned radioactive materials enters the oceans and the skies. There can be no real sense of moving into the future, unburdened by the past, without a recognition of the past, conjured up by an image of our collective mortality to remind us that nothing is forever.
Published to accompany Stella Chen’s Facade of Memory at Airspace Projects, May 5 to 21, 2017
Pic: Stella Chen, Facade of Caged Memory, 2015, photo projection, 59.4 x 84.1cm. Photo: Franz Anthony.