in Frieze | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics & Materiality

Tim Edensor (Berg, Oxford, 2005)

in Frieze | 12 MAY 05

‘Time turns metaphors into things, and stacks them up in cold rooms, or places them in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs.’ Robert Smithson’s elegant reversal of the traditional logic of the ruin might have been a suitable epigraph for Tim Edensor’s book. Industrial Ruins distinguishes itself early on from the aesthetic conventions of the study of ruins – the eager recourse to categories of the Gothic, the Sublime, the Picturesque – and announces its interest in the specifics of a geographically and historically restricted landscape: the abandoned industrial sites of northern and central England.
The territory is promising: an archipelago of glum voids extends across the region, a constellation of defunct motor factories, locomotive works, textile mills, foundries and steelworks. Edensor has been photographing them for several years. All the odder, then, is his swift dismissal of ‘superfluous geographical information’; he opts instead for an awkwardly abstracted and general approach, an anatomy essayed at some debilitating distance from its object.

At one level you can see why Edensor wants to efface the locations and histories of the places whose uncaptioned images punctuate his text. Such details would no doubt distract from the project’s frictionless slippage between broad cultural or economic forces and the minutest expressions of decay. Edensor is especially sensitive to the latter: he carefully adduces variations in the speed of collapse or rot, in the penetration of plant or animal life, the qualities of light and sound, the fineness of dust. He reconstructs the numerous actual and abstract conduits by which a factory, for example, was once connected to the surrounding landscape and argues that the industrial ruin remains a complex meeting point for economic, cultural, political and personal energies.

But Industrial Ruins is also a book so dispiritingly vandalized at the level of its rhetoric – first by that eccentric erasure of place and narrative, then by an oddly random (and secondhand) landfill of theory – that it quite fails to touch with any precision on the three rather crucial categories of its subtitle. ‘Space’ is reduced to some predictable corralling of the ideas of Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and Michel de Certeau. ‘Aesthetics’ is strictly nowhere: Edensor proceeds as if Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark and Bernd and Hilla Becher had never given a thought to the topic. He renders the rich artistic and literary history of the modern ruin as invisible as he does (‘materiality’ vanishes too) the very structures that inspired his study.