Dear Artists: Detroit's Abandoned Homes Are More Than Your Blank Canvas

Artists inspired by the city’s ruins walk a fine line between preservation and exploitation.
"The White House," by Ryan Mendoza, was on view at the Art Rotterdam festival in the Netherlands in February. Mendoza re
"The White House," by Ryan Mendoza, was on view at the Art Rotterdam festival in the Netherlands in February. Mendoza removed the facade of an abandoned house in Detroit for his installation, prompting criticism about how it affected the neighborhood it came from.

The Monday demolition of a blighted Detroit home made famous in an art installation thousands of miles away raises questions about the relationship between artists and the communities that inspire their work.

Ryan Mendoza, an American-born artist living in Europe, used the house on Stoepel Street as the raw material for “The White House” at the Art Rotterdam festival last month. He first visited Detroit last year, removed the facade of the house, which was purchased and donated by a local friend, and shipped it overseas. In the Netherlands city, he reconstructed the shell and painted it white. He played Motown hits and projected family snapshots and video taken during his trip to evoke the house's history.

The installation will reside permanently at the Verbeke Foundation art site in Belgium.

In an essay last month, Mendoza emphasized his personal relationship with the house and its previous owners. He plans to auction off the facades of several other houses and donate the proceeds to the communities where they once stood.

“If you look superficially this is exploitation. If you take the time and look more profoundly, this is connection,” Mendoza wrote in The Guardian. “I wouldn’t let the government bulldoze all the dilapidated houses with all their memories without one being preserved as testimony."

The Detroit Free Press first reported last week that the exposed remains of the house -- full of debris and falling plaster -- had been left untouched for six months despite complaints from neighbors, who say it is a dangerous eyesore.

"I feel disrespected to the max, like we are nothing," next-door neighbor Beverly Woung told the Free Press.

Following the report, the city demolished the structure, and on Wednesday, Mendoza signed an agreement to pay demolition costs. Mendoza, who never owned the property, blamed another local partner for failing to uphold their demolition agreement and stressed his desire to get the structure removed.

Artists’ fascination with ruins can be traced back centuries, and they've been drawn to the ones dotting Detroit’s landscape for years. But there’s been increasing pushback from Detroiters who urge transplants and visitors to respect the communities they’ve come to take part in -- or take from.

Even before the Stoepel house’s lingering blight made headlines, some saw Mendoza’s project as a prime example of ruin porn, appropriation, exploitation and neocolonialism.

Detroit arts writer Taylor Renee described the house’s whitewashing as obscuring the narrative of the black family that was forced to leave it.

Renee wrote in Arts.Black, Mendoza could instead have preserved the house’s memories by "amplifying the voices of the Thomas family and many others who were forced of out their homes as a result of the mortgage crisis.”

“Under the guise of ‘saving’ history or the city, as Mendoza suggests, images and materials are mined from it,” Brian Doucet and Drew Philp wrote in a separate Guardian article. “Like the resource extraction in other places, this mining leaves residents with little benefit.”

Artist Ryan Mendoza's installation at Art Rotterdam was <a href="
Artist Ryan Mendoza's installation at Art Rotterdam was painted white to protect its memories and shield it from viewers, he wrote in an essay. 

 Critics of the pervasive images of abandoned buildings in Detroit use the term “ruin porn” pejoratively, suggesting they celebrate and decontextualize decay, diminish residents and encourage distorted perceptions of the city as an urban wasteland.

Others in the art world say the label ignores the history of ruin imagery and the value of documentary photography.

“To condemn images of blasted lives and places that carry a whiff of ‘exploitation or detachment’ would be to do away with a sizeable chunk of pictorial and written history,” Richard Woodward argued in ARTNews in 2013.

But Mendoza's goal to create “a work of art for the community to be proud of," as he said in The Guardian, invites scrutiny of a piece created for a faraway audience that had a negative, if accidental, local impact.

In 2012’s “Displacement (13208 Klinger Street),” Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert displayed personal effects found in an empty home at a festival across the state. But the decision to work in their own neighborhood reveals the symbiosis that can exist between artists and communities: their organization Power House Productions has rehabbed several houses, turning them into installations as well as active hubs dedicated to music, theater, skateboarding and more.

For 30 years, Tyree Guyton has continued to transform his blighted block into a colorful found-art park, the Heidelberg Project, which also offers arts education programs.

An occupied house painted with polka dots, shown in 2013, is part of artist Tyree Guyton's ongoing Heidelberg Project install
An occupied house painted with polka dots, shown in 2013, is part of artist Tyree Guyton's ongoing Heidelberg Project installation in Detroit. 

As Hyperallergic writer Sarah Rose Sharp pointed out, in Detroit, “there is a thriving and exciting practice of reclaiming these spaces."

There are artists working with similar aims in other cities, like Rick Lowe’s “social sculpture” in a Houston neighborhood. Lowe renovated 22 abandoned homes to serve as housing and an arts venue for Project Row House. Candy Chang’s murals in New Orleans and elsewhere address local issues and invite collaboration.

Those projects have empathetically engaged with cities’ abandonment, in ways that speak to both locals and outsiders. Hopefully, two conditions will become standard for artists seeking inspiration among the ruins: firstly, consider the residents who deal with them in their daily lives, and secondly, leave their communities unscathed -- or better yet, better off.



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