(…) When you live in a place ruled by the shifting whims of nature, you learn to adjust to forces that exist beyond human control. In this sense, Detroit was an unlikely birthplace for the industrial era, with its goal of keeping automobiles rolling off the assembly line in a precisely timed cadence. The interplay and conflict between nature and industry is fundamental to Detroit’s psyche, and it is played out within the current landscape in fields where once buildings stood, the shattered ruins of formerly high production industrial facilities.
This sense of emptiness, of vestigial civilization, of visceral pushback against the ravages of the anthropocentric period, is very well captured in City of Queen Anne’s Lace, a two-person exhibit at Wasserman Projects in Detroit, featuring two Cuban artists, José Yaque and Alejandro Campins, and curated by Rafael DiazCasas. Both artists and the curator spent a long time in Detroit to develop and execute the project as guests of Wasserman Projects, and sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Cuban Art Fund.
The founder of Wasserman Projects, Gary Wasserman, had met Campins in Havana, amidst the preparation for the Biennial held in 2015. Wasserman was working on a lecture in which he drew a parallel between Detroit and Havana.
“There are in fact both similarities and differences,” said Wasserman, in an email interview with Art OnCuba. “Both cities have experienced profound changes since the early 1960s. Both Havana and Detroit underwent abrupt social and economic decline as their fundamental institutions were challenged with intractable problems. However, since then the solutions to similar problems have been quite different… (…) Both cities deteriorated, but the experience of dilapidation as seen by these artists is very different. Where we see failure in the dilapidation, these artists see opportunity. It seemed intriguing to bring them to Detroit for their perspective.”
Yaque, Campins, and DiazCasas are not the first to see Detroit’s fallout as inspiring, rather than desperate. They are not the first to muse poetically on the terrible beauty there is in decay. But like many first impressions, to become captivated by Detroit’s emptiness, its sprawling dilapidation is no less shallow than any other kind of superficial attraction. The materials in Yaque’s core sample, which visually simulate the kind of strata that takes millennia to produce, just took, at the most, 60 years to be formed. Both artists have eluded Detroit’s most critical feature: its people.
Detroit is not a ghost town, or a place filled with zombies shambling through the wasteland. To focus on Detroit’s ruins is to see it as a place that crumbled over a half-century of forced isolation, rather than as a place that has triumphed in spite of it. One would expect that denizens of Cuba, who have experienced a similar kind of politically-motivated siege, might identify with that. In the face of failed infrastructure, crushing racism, and an economic drought that lasted many a season, Detroiters shook themselves awake, and dug in deeper. The show’s title, City of Queen Anne’s Lace, which is the flowering cycle of the biennial wild carrot and a common sight among Detroit’s untended open spaces, is a nod to the exhibition’s ambition of capturing something of life on the ground in Detroit.
“The fields of Queen Anne’s Lace that overtake and inhabit the city can be thought of as a temporary stage,” said DiazCasas in the exhibition’s catalog essay, “one with the potential to spawn new growths of life. Campins’ and Yaque’s mutual gaze encompasses a society in change.”
It seems to me that this is not so. Like almost any person who really seeks to take in Detroit with eyes wide open, these artists ask the inevitable question: what happened here? If one spends more time in Detroit, one slowly gets a sense that these places are anything but vacant, only slow to reveal their secrets. These fields are home to gloriously beautiful pheasants, these empty lots become community gardens and apple orchards in the spring, these abandoned buildings become canvases, and these signs still show traces of decades-old hand painting. Queen Anne’s Lace becomes wild carrots, carrots become flowers, and it all goes back to the earth, eventually. (…)