Artist Relocates Abandoned Detroit Home Favorite 



Feb 26 2016


2016 Art Rotterdam

As art projects go, it's pretty audacious.

Ryan Mendoza, an expatriate American artist living in Berlin, Germany, and Naples, Italy, has torn down an abandoned two-story house in Detroit, shipped the pieces overseas and rebuilt it for display in Europe. But the 44-year-old Mendoza has gotten a lot more than he bargained for. In addition to the challenges of moving a house roughly 4,000 miles across the globe, he also wandered unwittingly into the politically charged debate over so-called ruin porn in Detroit — the exploitation and glamorization of the city's decay.

"Seen in a very simplistic way, this would be an exploitation," Mendoza said last week from Berlin. "But seen in a profound way, this is about connection. I could do one of two things as an artist going back to my country and seeing problems that are inherent in the society. I could ignore them, or I could embrace them. I chose to embrace them."

Mendoza, who is white, didn't start out to make a grand statement about Detroit, the issues of urban blight, the impact of racism or the darker currents of capitalism. He was merely looking for a way of reconnecting with his identity as an American after living abroad for 24 years.

But the backstory of what Mendoza calls "The White House" offers a reminder that once an artist commits to an idea, it's impossible to predict where it may lead. And the negative reaction he's received in some quarters reinforces a truism about the intersection of art, images of decay, race and class in contemporary Detroit: It's complicated.

"The most interesting implications are political," said Dora Apel, an art historian at Wayne State University and the author of "Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline" (2015). "The debate is about ruin porn, because there aren't larger political strategies in place to truly deal with the bigger issues behind the ruins in cities like Detroit. People look for ways to get a handle on issues, and this is what they’ve got."

The arguments around ruin porn have intensified as artists, particularly photographers, have flooded into Detroit while city champions struggle to counter negative publicity without overselling the nascent renaissance. There's a paradox in play: Artists' images of blight can effectively shine a necessary spotlight on the problems, but by turning the Packard Plant, Michigan Central Station and abandoned homes into something beautiful, they also can soften the impact and turn attention away from the true victims: city residents.

"It allows viewers to distance themselves from the reality," Apel said.

––Mark Stryker

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