Detroit, burning: Anders Ruhwald and the transformational politics of fire
By Anthony Byrt
For years now, outsiders have been obsessed with Detroit’s decline. It’s a preoccupation fed by the extraordinary ‘ruin porn’ that has poured out of the city – romantic images of near-collapsed buildings slumping into ground they’ve barely had a century to stand on. Fire has played an important part in this too, routinely breaking out in empty buildings, or, just as often, being lit deliberately by the city’s enthusiastic arsonists. There’s a ritual aspect to this as well, with Detroit’s infamous ‘Devil’s Night’ blazes, in which abandoned houses are set alight the night before Halloween.
That the rest of us should turn Motor City’s blight and its violent history of arson into something sublime, and even comforting, is strange. It is also a false picture; rather than being frozen in a kind of catastrophic emptiness, Detroit is home, still, to around 700,000 people. But our near-mythical misperceptions of it say a lot about the place it has in America’s collective psyche. It is arguably the country’s most iconic industrial metropolis – its fortunes mirroring America’s own industrial-capitalist rise and fall. The ascendance of Donald Trump and the collapse of Detroit are two shades of the same underlying fear; that the American Dream was exactly that – an unattainable mirage.
Equally, this is why Detroit’s nascent recovery is so important: post-subprime mortgage crisis, post-auto bailout and post-bankruptcy, it is a model for what a realistic twenty-first century America might look like – poorer, smaller and less powerful than many people pretend it to be.
Anders Ruhwald is an outsider: a Dane who has found himself living in greater Detroit for several years. Like many Detroit-area artists, the city’s blight has presented him with significant opportunities to expand his practice. At the end of 2014 he purchased a building, which is divided into four apartments. Since then he has been slowly fixing it, not in an act of gentrification or flipping but as an attempt to capture and understand the peculiar physical energies that have shaped the structure and the city around it: the transformation of wood, iron and metals into the twentieth century’s most defining industries; world wars; racial tensions; economic failure; and most of all, the transformative force of fire.
This installation in Cleveland is both a prototype and a doppelgänger for Ruhwald’s Detroit project. In it, he presents us with ‘Apartment number 1.’ We enter through a regular door, step into a hallway, then weave our way through its internal rooms. Along the way, we encounter various objects, many of which are from his Detroit property: four hundred iron weights hanging from the hallway ceiling (around forty of them come from his house); an old photograph of a tropical paradise; and blackened radiators.
There are also objects Ruhwald has made – most notably a series of black lamps, which, rather than illuminating spaces, emanate heat inside lead-lined octagonal rooms. In the back room is a vaguely threatening set of black, egg-like forms. The wall surfaces have been blackened too, constructed from charred timber. Burned wood is usually a sign of fire damage but it is also, in a lot of vernacular architectural traditions, a method of preservation: a natural way of sealing a building’s outer skin against the elements.
Wood, metal, touch.
The timber and lead are interesting material moves for Ruhwald, given that he is, notionally, a ceramicist. Within his native discipline, heat’s transformative potential is a basic principle, bordering on a cliché. Here, rather than simply harnessing heat to turn inert clay into shining, delicate forms, he has placed it in an unstable, constantly shifting relationship with his own physical power as a maker. Ruhwald has always understood his objects only in terms of the boundary where they meet the world. We might call this his objects’ ‘surfaces,’ but that doesn’t quite do justice to the liminal space he routinely creates, which is both a form’s finished, permanent state and the indexical trace of his own touch – the space where his energy is transferred onto, and contained in, another body.
This installation, in a sense, is an opportunity for him to show the full metaphorical and formal potential of energy transference – of light into heat, touch into surface, fire into charred space, objects into bodies, and history into the present.
A city made of fire.
This raises an important series of interrelated questions: What do we actually encounter when we encounter Ruhwald’s black, and blackened, objects? What do we encounter when we encounter them in this particular space? And what do we encounter when we know that this space is actually a double for another, somewhere else?
The short answer is: Detroit. But a short answer isn’t always a straightforward one.
Detroit’s long relationship with fire manifests itself most obviously in the automotive industry, where heat is essential to creating the alloys that have transformed the way we all live and move. The gradual collapse of the auto industry is an essential part of Detroit’s fall from one of America’s wealthiest cities to one of its poorest. At its peak, it tipped the scales at two million people. Now, it has fewer than half that. Its poorer neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of fire – the same force that kept the autoworkers who once filled its plants with roofs over their heads.
But Ruhwald isn’t really interested in making work about Detroit’s failure. Instead, he presents us with the possibility of understanding its decline as an inevitable step in a transformative, and even cyclical, process. This is where his idea that the city’s reliance on fire might also have had, embedded within it, the DNA for its later destruction becomes so important.
In this regard, his installation’s found objects are absolutely crucial. There is, for example, the front door, with its Number ‘1’ – the very same door from his Detroit building, linking us directly to his phantom, near-derelict home. Then there are the iron weights dangling in the hallway; all of them salvaged from old Detroit houses, including his, as they’ve been demolished or renovated. They are the weights that raise and lower sash windows, usually hidden inside window frames. Their exposure here then, is a kind of nakedness. They are also made with fire – iron, heated and poured into molds to make perfectly balanced objects that help us control our relationships between inside and outside.
A photo and two bombs.
The weights are a kind of generic statement, the sheer number of them a marker of Detroit’s crisis. But another of Ruhwald’s found elements is more specific: a photograph he uncovered when he took possession of the house. It is of Diamond Head, on the Hawaiian island of O‘ahu. On the reverse of the image is a date: 2-8-41.
Anyone who’s spent a winter in Detroit will understand perfectly well why someone would hang a photograph of a tropical island in their apartment. But the date is unavoidably resonant – just ten months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ruhwald’s entirely reasonable assumption is that the photograph belonged to a former owner or tenant, who was probably a returned serviceman stationed in Hawaii in 1941.
Pearl Harbor was the fire that transformed America’s isolationist stance, transformed the eventual outcome of World War II, and certainly transformed the Midwest’s industrial cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Well out of Japanese striking range, the industrial revolution that started on Henry Ford’s moving assembly line in Highland Park – located within Detroit’s city limits – was harnessed into a military machine that ultimately stopped the German and Japanese advances: the conversion of raw materials into the tanks, ships, guns and planes that won the war.
Of course, this isn’t just a rosy, triumphant picture. It also led to the most horrific use of fire and heat in human history – the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.
Though many people trace Detroit’s current troubles to the race riots of the late sixties, it’s clear that these relationships between globalization, speed, technology and mechanized war in the first half of the twentieth century are just as responsible. The GI Bill that followed World War II was also a factor. Cheap mortgages, cheap cars, and the building of new freeways made it easy for returning servicemen to leave the city. Detroit’s foundations started to crack under the weighty promise of a simple, suburban, post-traumatic life – an exodus of people, money and jobs that sealed the lonely fate of buildings like Ruhwald’s house.
A photo and some dangling weights. Objects that don’t just illustrate history but embody it in the present tense, constantly renewing their stories in the moment of encounter. But what of the objects Ruhwald has made himself? These are less about specific histories than they are about his sensitivity to materiality – a highly particular understanding of the relationships between a given form’s metaphorical, indexical and phenomenological properties.
In octagonal rooms dotted through the space, Ruhwald presents three versions of the same thing: a lamp, with a black, lumpy head. I say head rather than shade, or bulb, because they seem to stand at a human height. And rather than emitting light, they give off a bodily heat. They are deeply strange objects, pocked on their surfaces with Ruhwald’s typical impressions. These organic indentations, as they so often do in his work, also make the forms seem vaguely turd-like, like shits on sticks – another troubling, human relation as we feel their emanating warmth. There are many possible reasons, then, for their single-word title: the lamps are simply known as Source.
The rooms themselves, as mentioned earlier, are lined with lead. Lead is a nuclear seal – a way to keep thermal energy trapped. It was also a material used extensively in Detroit’s auto plants, and, formerly, in the construction of its homes. And it is a poison, as the recent Flint water crisis – which was caused by the decision to switch off the smaller city’s water supply from Detroit – has shown. Poison, incidentally, is a secondary theme here. The color black is also associated with the extreme pollution of Detroit via the vast amounts of coke (a byproduct of coal) that coated the homes and lungs of residents who lived close to the city’s major industrial sites. Ruhwald has used coke crystals to coat every surface in his apartment’s bathroom, too.
The most unsettling objects in Ruhwald’s installation are the strange, egg-cum-lozenge-cum-teardrop forms filling one of the back rooms. I first encountered these in the Detroit house, in the only room Ruhwald had at that point completed. Late afternoon light spilled into the blackened space through a solitary window; an early spring glow like a Hammershoi painting. This created a stillness that in turn made the objects seem even more static. I wasn’t sure then what they are, and I’m still not. Bodies? Eggs? And if they are eggs, what on earth could they be hatching? The way they fill the room is nest-like; the fact that we can’t really move without disturbing them, without brushing against and risking their surfaces – as with any egg, we never quite know how deep or hard their shells really are.
An apartment filled with ghosts.
Houses are expansive; contingent on an understanding that their outer skin is where our lives, and our aspirations, meet the world. This is why Detroit’s domestic ruins affect us so much: we see them as bodies, as people, as us. Their windows as eyes into our collective, post-industrial soul.
But Ruhwald hasn’t given us a house. He has given us an apartment. Apartments, by contrast with houses, are definitively interior – they are spaces in which, inside, we experience one-to-one encounters between bodies and objects. They are places of solitude, or at best, close co-existence: rooms in which we hide, eat, fuck, hunker against the outside.
This is precisely how Ruhwald orchestrates our encounter with his space, and the objects contained within it. He invites us in, but also expects us to give ourselves over to his apartment’s intimate demands – to meet it with a preparedness to be alone, together. The charred walls leave us even more exposed. To burn something is to peel back its skin, to have it flayed. But if we also take this as an architectural reversal – that the walls are a preserved external membrane flipped inwards – then it becomes profoundly hallucinatory, as if he has somehow left us standing inside the outside.
This disorientation is quickly assuaged by a balancing, generous act; because to heat something – as his oddly human lamps in their thermal shelters do – is a gesture of protection. In Ruhwald’s apartment, then, we encounter a physical embodiment of how most of us understand ‘home:’ as the place where we’re simultaneously at our safest and most vulnerable. His is a space of closeness and transformation, filled with bodies and ghosts: spectral residues of cities, of traumatic histories, and many fires.
Anthony Byrt is an award-winning critic and journalist. His writing has appeared in publications around the world, including Artforum International and frieze. His first book, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art, has just been published by Auckland University Press. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with his wife and son, and tries to get to Detroit as often as he can.