While browsing the newspaper’s photography section yesterday, I found myself drawn to a series of images of a recently discovered and almost perfectly preserved Second World War Kittyhawk fighter plane that had crashed in the Sahara desert. It invoked a feeling in me I often get when looking at derelict or abandoned places and objects, and that I have often found difficult to explain. It reminded me of the feeling I had when reading Alain de Botton’s description of his exploration of an aeroplane graveyard in the Californian desert (something that has earned a place on my ‘to do’ list); there is a unique stillness to such places that is hard to replicate. The meeting point of the eerie and soothing has a very special quality and I am not the only person to notice this.
Urban exploration (or ‘urbex’) has become a popular pursuit in London and other large cities in recent years. The internet is teeming with photography projects depicting abandoned warehouses, factories and dereliction of all kinds, often in the process of being reclaimed by nature. The sight of grass and weeds growing through the floor of an empty building has an almost science fiction quality, reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic mangrove covered cities of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. A post-apocalyptic aesthetic that has retained its appeal since its heyday in the ‘duck and cover’ era of the early Cold War. The fact that urbex is so popular in bustling cities obviously owes itself to the abundance of appropriate locations but it is also a concept particularly appealing to city-dwellers more generally. Those of us who commute on public transport daily and are rarely more than a few feet away from another human being can surely understand the delight of finding an abandoned hideaway in a forgotten corner of a metropolis. When we find little personal space in our daily lives, to find a secret place is in some sense to take ownership of it.
It is surely ironic that places defined by age and decay can evoke the innocence of childhood.
The most extreme real-life manifestation of this idea that I have encountered was a series of photographs published in the Telegraph some years ago of various location shots in Chernobyl: abandoned apartments, playgrounds, town squares and other such remnants of the everyday take on a whole new identity by virtue of their having been abandoned for such a length of time. Some of these images were so hauntingly beautiful that I would have considered framing them and putting them on my wall, were it not for my knowledge of the terrible catastrophe that led to the town’s abandonment and of those who lost their lives in it. But no amount of knowledge about the tragic circumstances and radioactive contagion that blight that place contradict the beauty of the images. The same feeling came to me when looking at images of Scott’s hut in Antarctica (which can now be viewed on Google street view and I can’t recommend it enough); untouched remnants of day-to-day existence had taken on a hallowed status by their very abandonment.
Something about exploring abandoned places reminds one of childhood, of sneaking into places you aren’t supposed to be and dreaming up imaginary explanations for your surroundings. In this way the, empty and desolate is a kind of blank canvas; it is surely ironic that places defined by age and decay can evoke the innocence of childhood. There is also a certain giddy fantasy element to post-apocalyptic scenarios, much like what Douglas Coupland alludes to in many of his novels about the idea of being the sole survivor of some great cataclysm and being free to explore your surroundings at leisure. This concept would obviously turn quickly to fear and despair in a real-life context, but safe in the confines of our fantasy world it retains a strange allure. This allure owes a great deal to a certain ‘meditative’ element, and I use the term more literally than figuratively; central to Buddhist techniques of meditation are the concepts of emptiness and timelessness. To see something that has been allowed to deteriorate undisturbed simultaneously showcases the passage of time while seeming to make it stand still.
There are only certain kinds of locations that allow this process (deserts, frozen wastelands, abandoned towns, sealed off or subterranean hideaways of cities) which have a quality all of their own which is transferred to the inhabiting flotsam, if left alone for long enough. There are few circumstances where we are able to actually see things decay; the modern world is built on renewal and upgrade. This is, for the most part, all for the better, but it is worth appreciating deterioration; impermanence is, after all, the only constant.