I was nine when a storm blew down the brick wall of our backyard. The wall never got rebuilt. This simple elimination of bricks and mortar exposed the privacy of our home but also brought down the barrier to the neighbouring terrain, a storage site for construction materials. To us children, the materials – stacks of wood pallets, concrete slabs, iron, mountains of sand and stone – presented neat challenges for games that were invented on the spot. They were the vehicles of our imagination: we were indifferent to their function and never quite thought of them as ingredients for prospective construction.
Lara Almarcegui’s solo show at TENT in Rotterdam – her adopted city of residence – reminded me of that openness of materials and, above all, places. The exhibition provided a survey of the artist’s systematic inventory of wastelands, ruins and other undefined areas suspended somewhere between desertion (or demolition) and future planning. It was also the first time that these seemingly random manifestations of urban environmental oblivion, charted by Almarcegui over the past 15 years, were presented together in a single exhibition space. This proved to be something of a challenge: the wastelands and ruins that she documents in her photographs and guidebooks are scattered around the globe, ranging from São Paulo to the empty village of Al Khan in Sharjah; from the Bilbao river estuary to the banks of the Flushing River in Queens, New York. Brought together in TENT as a chart of uncharted land, they revealed a consistent body of work while opening up the exhibition venue to the actual spaces and experiences of chance encounter and experimentation – a bit like that collapsed wall in my garden. The show thus also commented on the exhibition space itself as a site for representing things (work, thoughts, lived experience), which always originate someplace else.
That might seem contradictory, given the exhibition’s central work, the newly commissioned Construction Rubble of TENT’s Central Space (2011), made specifically for TENT. Here, Almarcegui translated calculations of construction materials used for TENT’s largest room into actual material mass, compiled into neat mountains of pulverized glass (0.9 m³), concrete (62.8 m³), wood chips (2.7 m³) and so forth. Eight heaps, varying in volume, height and colour occupied the gallery: a matter-of-fact, fact of the matter, as well as a strange double of the white-walled construction in which they were contained. By turning its construction inside out and back to the bare minimum of its constituent elements, Almarcegui gave the space some of the same potential freedom she finds in the unarticulated sites of the urban environment, where nothing is planned (yet) and where, hypothetically, you can start from scratch.
Although Construction Rubble... dominated the exhibition – in its scale, its central place and its gesture to the building – it was firmly embedded in the overall presentation of Almarcegui’s projects, which always take shape within the temporal and social fabric of manmade environments that she documents in her photos, slides and guidebooks. Almarcegui’s work departs from the desire to let space, and people’s use of it, manifest itself. In that regard, her approach is reminiscent of Stanley Brouwn’s mappings of space and Gordon Matta-Clark’s ‘Anarchitecture’. Almarcegui’s ‘work’ is the evidence of previous actions and, often, her ongoing engagement with these places. In her Guide to the Wastelands of São Paulo (2006), made for the 27th São Paulo Biennial as part of an ongoing series of self-published, low-budget and free guidebooks, Almarcegui selected ‘the most interesting empty places in the city’ – places that might soon be developed, and thus might disappear at any moment.
Almarcegui refers to wastelands as places ‘where almost anything is possible because there is nothing in them’. In her photographs, this nothingness translates into images of weed-choked, lush or bare plots, with the occasional remnants of construction – photos that hardly fulfill the romantic promise of such ‘lands of possibilities’. But that is the very strength of her documents of these wastelands. Presented in TENT as a comprehensive study, her images did not appear scientific, as one might expect. In fact, they seemed as uncultivated as the lands they depicted – not in a romantic sense, but in a practical and pragmatic one. This is perhaps best understood by means of the Dutch title of Almarcegui’s wasteland projects – braakliggende terreinen (literally, ‘fallow terrain’) – which historically refers to pieces of farmland that were deliberately left uncultivated, so as to recover from their agricultural use. Almarcegui’s documentation shares that deliberate openness and conscious decision not to interfere (which is, of course, an artistic choice). As such her work suspends any promise of these places, which is to be fulfilled not by means of spectatorship but by active and physical engagement with this land. That, indeed, can only originate some place else – with both of your feet in the dirt.