Do you find the picture above, taken by an urban exploration photographer, unsettling, provocative or even beautiful? It appears to show an old delivery bed set against the clinical white tiles of a hospital maternity room. But the image is saturated with the disintegration, disorder and messiness associated with a long period of abandonment. The image juxtaposes the intimate biological process of birth with the implied inevitability of decay and death. Why might images like this have such a compelling aesthetic beauty?
This photograph is typical of the mementos collected by urban explorers (shortened as urbex) – individuals and groups who choose to investigate the abandoned ruins of human-made structures and environments. Over recent years the activity of urban exploration has grown in popularity with websites, films and books documenting the dilapidation of abandoned everyday spaces. A stunning example of this genre is the recent collection ‘Soviet Ghosts’ by the photographer Rebecca Litchfield. As is said in Litchfield’s book, urban explorers actively seek out taboo spaces and:
…turn away from white picket fences and Ikea facades of modern life to a place where a different concept of beauty sleeps and, a place of decay, unfamiliar yet alluring. Buildings that normally do not warrant a second glance become galleries of cultural memory, exhibiting the social detritus of a recent civilisation. Braving injury and arrest, these adventurers authenticate our histories long before the historians arrive.
The documenting of the abandoned often focuses on twentieth century ‘total institutions’ and popular amongst these are hospitals, sanatoria and asylums. What can the iconography of these abandoned places of care tell us about our attitudes towards healthcare?
The allure of these abandoned images refers partly to our own individual fears, desires and ambivalences about total institutions of care. We need for places to be available when we are incapacitated or unable to care for ourselves but we also typically do not want to visit such places. We both love and fear institutions of care. As psychoanalysis reminds us the feelings of abandonment by, or the loss of, loved objects are universal and difficult to process. But they linger as unresolved psychological alienations that both disconcert and attract. Some of the key recurring representations in modernity, such as that of Frankenstein, speak to these fears and desires around abandonment. Images of deserted hospitals resonate in the same way that gothic portrayals of monsters, or more contemporary aliens and zombies are able to both repel and attract.
Some go further than this and argue that the phenomenon of abandonment is central to modernity itself and diffuses through all social institutions, that it is “emblematic of consumer societies” in the era of late capitalism. “To be modern is to feel disconnected, to be detached, and in a state of constant loss”. Imagery that captures the loss and abandonment of institutions that care for us in our most vulnerable and intimate states speak to these feelings of disconnect.
Moreover there is a sense in which modernity “presents itself as gleaming, consistent, and coherent – as something that is pure…”. Indeed this is much like our image of the ideal hospital where we would all like to be treated. But it is argued that modernity is not actually pure at all – lurking beneath the smooth pure surfaces is a messy non-coherence. Pictures of hospitals in advanced states of decomposition reveal the short distance between the pure coherence of the modern clinic and simultaneous messy non-coherence that was there all the time.
Abandonment imagery is compelling because it points us away from a pious humanism towards a post-humanist future. Litchfield’s book, in introducing ‘Soviet Ghosts’, observes that these photographs might not be about forgotten sites but a strange reminder of possible alternative futures. Our fiction (and often non-fiction) media loves to project dystopian apocalyptic post society landscapes but:
… when confronted with the reality that these places not only exist, but also allude to what could have been, do not they cut, rather than prick at our conscience? Are we truly the victors of history? Do these images not remind us of the need for compassion and understanding?
The beauty in the decay is so very human.
And that may also partly explain why we are drawn to the imagery of hospitals in decay. Do they remind of us what the future might be if we fail to keep our institutions of healthcare out of the hands of greedy carpetbaggers? And what does this tell us about the idea of the welfare state? Are we in danger, in years to come, of looking back at the ruins of our institutions of care for the vulnerable and needy and wondering about the possibilities of what might have been?