Reflections on the phenomenon of the unfinished, the monumental, the abandonement and the appropiation.
(text from 2013)
TEXTO ORIGINAL EN ESPAÑOL ABAJO
At around 6 pm, 1.5 hours before it turns pitch black, a group of 3 people are going on a motorboat towards what is known in the town as the ‘abandoned hotel’. Some distance away, as we get closer to it, the hotel complex crowned by a tower comes into view, ever bigger… bigger even than what one might have imagined after hearing the story of power, megalomania and corruption behind this place.
When we get to a point where the boat can no longer go on due to lack of depth, we are forced to get out and cross the rest of the lagoon on foot, and as we reach the land, such is the degree to which nature has reclaimed the place that our guide, who has been there more than eight times, can’t seem to find the way in. Certain stories we’ve heard along with the absolute isolation of the place create a strong feeling of tension. Finally, machete in hand, our guide finds the entrance and we follow him.
As he opens up the way, he warns us of possible (small) crocodiles, so we should watch our step. These animals, which originally didn’t belong in the lagoon, arrived when a governor, after taking the land from owners and workers, decided to build, among other eccentricities, a crocodile pond inside what could have been one of the biggest hotel complexes in the country, should it have been finished. One day the lagoon rose, and the captive inhabitants escaped.
Finally we’re able to cross a stone bridge that used to go over the once (though briefly) crocodile filled pond and observe part of the complex. It seems so big that in the less than two hours available, it will be impossible to visit it all, much less photograph it. As we head to the main plaza access, a loud and repetitive metallic noise starts to be heard… As my companions go into the plaza and ask aloud to see if there is somebody there, I start to set the tripod and 4x5 camera, and so starts also a race against time to walk through and photograph some of the spaces of the complex, which half reclaimed by nature, is now closer to a labyrinth than a hotel.
Towards the end of the daylight, as we stand on the top of the highest tower, we watch among the dense vegetation a person carrying scraps of what would have served as railings, had the hotel been finished. Apparently, those ominous smashing noises were no more than those of a person reclaiming part of what had been previously taken from him… According to testimonies, a couple months before being finished and inaugurated, the governor -owner and main investor-, was convicted due to links with the narc. Still, construction works went on for a whole two months without the workers being told about it, and without them being paid a single cent of those final weeks worth of work. And so this building, which was weeks away from being finished and causing a true environmental catastrophe, is being little by little devoured by both man and nature, each reclaiming their own. A complex that shows, on multiple levels, that progress sometimes moves in the opposite direction of what modernity usually prognoses, sells and (usually) imposes.
Even though when I started ‘Suspended Spaces’ I had a relatively clear idea of a few of the economical, social and even political implications some of these places might have, the development of the project itself and the constant physical exploration of them –something not void of a frequent sense of danger-, have led me to formulate a series of questions and provoked a series of reflections, some of which I try to explore in this brief text.
On the one hand, although ‘Suspended Spaces’ explores a type of architectural abandonment that is different from the ‘common’ one, even this second type of abandonment has triggered in me a deeper personal interest, due especially to the ever bigger presence of this kind of image in the media, with a clear emphasis on photography. What is it that makes the idea of abandonment so explored and exploited? Why is it that the image of a deserted, eroded and ruined place results so attractive to so many people, in so many different contexts?
The idea of the abandonment, enhanced by the direct and primitive character of the image, seems to provoke a series of also primal reactions In the viewer, some of which acquire a still bigger enhancement in today’s context of global uncertainty. It is no coincidence that innumerable tv series, movies and more and more photographic works, not to mention movements like the urbex, take place in scenarios with a post-apocalyptic appearance.
Besides the strong emotional and historical echoes that images of this kind generate, reminding on one hand of (both real and imaginary) life stories and the inhabitation of these spaces, and on the other of catastrophic scenarios such as armed conflicts and natural disasters, this second kind of ideas stir memories of pain and/or insecurity, and maybe precisely due to the sum of all of this, the idea of abandonment ends up, paradoxically, transmitting a two sided emotion, causing the spectator to feel both nostalgia, as well as fear and uncertainty, or even loneliness.
A second paradox that arises when trying to analyse the idea of uncertainty, is that this might not even be repelled by the viewer, but could even be longed for. Uncertainty wouldn’t necessarily represent a negative emotion, but occasionally could well signify a type of fictitious scape valve, a scenario close to the idea of the ‘State of Nature’ as discussed by Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, in which the notion of authority, government, law and social contract has been diluted, and so a more primary state of human, natural and –again- social relationship takes place. Once again, it is no coincidence that the increase in the interest in, and/or the attraction to this kind of scenarios emerges in a historical moment of great uncertainty. A time when huge sectors of the population express great discontent with the state of things, and with the prospect of the social, economical, environmental and even food related issues. In a world where privacy in ever reduced, where the methods of power and control exercised by governments and big corporations grow and multiply, where the disparity in the distributions of wealth, resources and opportunities, and thus the difference in power, seem to increase, and where the effects of the environmental policies (or lack thereof) have an ever bigger tangible impact, the idea of an escape, a kind of tabula rasa or cultural revolution, might just represent a prospect which for some could be more attractive than repulsive, even if this meant a true human catharsis/crisis. All of this is, of course, in great part fictitious, but still helps to understand the apparently big seductive power of the idea of abandonment in an image.
This would also explain why this seductive power multiplies when intersecting with the monumental. It is indisputable that architecture once and again is used as a physical incarnation of power. The big pyramids, cathedrals, the great monuments to political leaders (sometimes self-monuments), architectures of submission or the race for height in the XX Century, and now on the XXI, are just some examples of how power is reflected in architecture, and how the will of a few, or occasionally of one, can dictate the future of the construction of the habitable world and the transformation of the landscape. Thus, the abandonment of the monumental (or in the specific case of the ‘Suspended spaces’, the premature abandonment, or the monumental unfinished), becomes from the point of view of the one in power a defeat, but simultaneously a sort of triumph, a small exercise of justice, or even hope, looked at from the point of view of the ‘subjugated’, that who has no access to the abstract entity called power. A symbolism that only grows, ironically enough, proportionally to the size of the original aspirations of the construction, or proportionally to the ego of the individual, group or institution that has promoted it.
This way, these constructions become true monuments, although now they help remember something very different from their original purpose. A monument, that from symbolizing the ideas after which it was conceived, such as the showcase of the economic muscle or the political power of a leader or institution, or even the symbolization of progress itself, now symbolizes the abuse, the waste of resources, the retrogression, the bad planning, or the motive for change. Monuments, which therefore should serve as important lessons that unlike written history, are physical, immobile, visible, constant and on occasion salvageable reminders. A kind of incarnated entropy that could in some cases, nevertheless, be reverted.
This possible reversion, meanwhile, might start with another simple but equally emblematic act: reclaiming, (re)appropriation and/or occupation. The fact of the original failure doesn´t only mean, as is the case of the hotel complex described above, a true environmental miracle or evidence of a road that we might be better off avoiding and of course repeating, but it also means that the transformation of these spaces, frequently started by a small spark incarnated in whomever appropriates them, represents also a chance, and looked at from a certain point of view, a kind of hope, be it human or natural.