An Essay on Decay
This article appeared in the first issue of Disegno in 2011.
Earlier this year the mummified body of a Hollywood actress was found in a dilapidated Beverley Hills villa. Yvette Vickers had made a career in the movies by playing pneumatic blonds in b-movies like ‘Attack of the Giant Leaches’ and ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ in the 1950s before becoming a Playboy centrefold. Believing that she was being stalked, Vickers had become a recluse late in life. She’d not been seen for a year and had probably been dead for as long. A (misplaced) sense of celebrity had overwhelmed her. She died with the lights on and surrounded by movie magazines, fan mail, wigs and her wardrobe. Her discoverers had to fight their way through piles of Hollywood junk to find the ‘compressed’ body and what the coroner’s office described as ‘dried skin, leathery’. It is perhaps not surprising that some commentators drew a poignant connection between the debris of celebrity and her mummified body. A product of an industry which trades on on-screen novelty, she’d become a kind of forgotten scrap, literally.
Decay ought to be a matter of interest to architects and designers as well as to forensic scientists and coroners. How things die – or, more precisely, how the materials from which they have been fashioned decompose – is one of the troubling questions of the age. We often talk about the ‘life cycle’ of products but some things just refuse to leave this world. The image of the rubbish dump strewn with indestructible products, belching invisible greenhouse gases is the visual symbol of our present anxieties, just as the mushroom cloud was for our parents and grandparents. Manufacturing high quality biodegradable plastics has, for instance, been a kind of twenty-first century grail. The challenge is to provide materials which look and behave like their everlasting counterparts but then disappear without a trace. When we have been encouraged to value the stable, smooth and infinitely malleable qualities of our synthetic materials, it is difficult to imagine an alternative language for plastic.
When Studio Formafantasma, young Italian designers, set themselves this task, they turned to the early science of Botany to find prehistoric plastics. The ‘Botanica’ collection shown in Milan earlier this year exploits materials and techniques generated in early experiment with resins, polymers and natural rubber. Their simple vessels and lamps have irregular shapes and uneven surfaces, often bearing the rough texture of the aggregates used to stiffen the resins. Worked by hand with heat or pressed in moulds, these forms can be reshaped too. The forms seem as archaic as the techniques used to make them. But of course with the post-oil condition approaching rapidly, the future of plastic may be more like its past than we once imagined. Coloured in subdued tones and with their origins in plants, blood and even insect excrement, Studio Formafantasma’s experiments ask not only that reset our taste but also our expectations about the mutability of things. Undeniably beautiful and enigmatic these sketches for domestic products look impermanent, as if on the cusp of decay – a little too soft or too brittle, a little too damp or a little too dry.
There have, of course, been good reasons why designers and manufacturers have fought decay. ‘Durable’ is a good selling tag. Moreover, we are hardwired to avoid decay, an evolutionary response to the threat of polluted materials and rotting food. It accompanies a category of abject things which exist on the borders of the living and the dead. Yet, at the same time, we seem to be attracted by abjection, fascinated by the way in which dying things can change their appearance before our eyes. Mould can grow in miraculous sprays of colour and rotting matter can smell sickly-sweet.
Famously, in 1993 Hussein Chalayan caused a stir with his graduate collection – entitled ‘The Tangent Flows’ – featuring dresses he had buried with iron filings in the garden of the north London vicarage where he was living as a student. Clearly, the young designer had things to say about vanitas – the tradition in Renaissance art of using images of cut flowers, tables burgeoning with over-ripe food and snuffed-out candles to meditate on the provisional nature and ultimate emptiness of human existence. Chalayan was making a point about the dead-eyed world of fashion in which he was about to become a star. Yet the appeal of his decomposing dresses was not just a matter of lofty ideas: the rusty surface of the frayed lace and braised silk was strangely and unexpectedly beautiful.
The Aesthetics of Decay
Decay may have been brought to the catwalk by Chalayan but it was hardly a new aesthetic. Two hundred years ago, Romantics poets and painters drew melancholic pleasure from ruins. The image of an abandoned and cracked building yielding to weeds seemed to offer lessons about the inevitable fall of overblown civilizations and the ultimate power of nature. Decay and ruination has valued in the Romantic imagination because they can remind us of the age of things. In this view of the past, a cracked and broken monument is more resonant than a pristine one.
This understanding shaped David Chipperfield Architects’ much celebrated restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin. A ruin after the Second World War with its windows broken and roof missing, this nineteenth century neoclassical landmark had to wait until the end for Berlin to become the German capital again to be revived. Chipperfield eschewed imitation, trying to salvage what he could of the historic fabric whilst introducing unsentimental and avowedly new elements where the past could not be reclaimed. Like strata in an archaeological dig, fragments of nineteenth century decorative schemes float on rough plaster and new wall surfaces frame old brickwork. The result is not only ethereal but it makes the Neues Museum a chronometer of Berlin’s troubled history.
The poetics of decay should not, however be confused with decay itself. For the last few months Chalayan’s decomposing dress has been on display at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, almost twenty years since it was disinterred from the ground. A garment which once spoke about the ephemerality of fashion, has been preserved in the low light and temperature-controlled glass cases of the Museum. It looks like an artefact from a lost civilization (c. Britain in AD 1993). Similarly, the Neues Museum is beautifully arrested and stabilized. The building seems to be saying ‘History stops here’.
The debris from the site of World Trade Centre in New York stored in a hangar at JFK Airport confronts the paradoxes of preserving decay. Produced in the course of terrible few hours, it has been kept there for a decade, awaiting its future deployment in the form of memorials across the USA and elsewhere. Recorded by Francesc Torres in photographs exhibited in London’s Imperial War Museum under the title ‘Memory Remains’, some of these relics – including a crushed yellow taxi-cab and a broken fire engine – are easily identified. Others are not. The vertical collapse of 110 stories pulverized metal, glass and concrete into strange, extra-terrestrial objects. Buckled and scorched, the things in the hanger have been subject to the careful attention of white-gloved conservators. Loose flakes of paint are glued back in place when they drop from the shattered objects in the hangar. Writing the London Review of Books, art critic Hal Foster has puzzled over this: ‘Is that the right response to a thing whose value is in part its index of time?’ This is a question about the differences between decay as a look and as a process.
We only have to look around us to understand decay as a natural and inevitable process. It plays a key role in the cycle of life. Cells which are not renewed, degenerate. And, once dead, life forms decompose into simpler forms, supporting micro-organisms and bacteria. The fertile soil from which we are sustained is, of course, the organic product of these cycles of growth and decay. The idea of the life-cycle is explored in James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau’s ‘Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots’ (2009), a series of experimental projects exploring the form and purpose of the future robot. A family of devices performing modest domestic tasks, the ‘Lampshade Robot’, the ‘Flypaper Robotic Clock’ and the ‘Mouse Trap Coffee-table Robot’ are each equipped with microbial fuel cells that can turn organic matter into electricity. When mice and insects – attracted by light or crumbs – are trapped and delivered to the cell, the chemical energy released as they decompose is converted into the electrical energy needed by the robots to function. In Auger and Loizeau’s designs, the cycle of life and death promises to revolve ad infinitum. And with the operation of the microbial fuel cell fully visible, the owner is a witness to a struggle of (artificial) life and death.
A New Nature
The strange beauty of decay is evident when looking at the eight large format photographic images produced by artists Jane and Louise Wilson in the town of Pripyat in the Ukraine. Close to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Pripyat was largely abandoned in 1986 when an explosion spewed large clouds of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The artists revisited the city to produce the ‘Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)’ series. Abandoned interiors – the original purpose of which seems no longer clear – have succumbed to nature. Mould grows on walls in dark ominous swirls; damp has caused the parquet to convulse, making the floor looks like a strange geometric landscape. It is a terrible beauty. Signs of occupation – like the ordinary possessions of the people who once lived in Pripyat – have already disappeared. Soon, all that will be left is the steel and concrete.
The Wilsons’ photographs tap into to a potent fantasy, namely the idea of the Earth without human life. It is expressed in Bible in the form of the Garden Eden, the blessed state from which mankind was banished. It has, in recent years, been a staple theme of science fiction films and futurology. The History Channel’s hit ‘documentary’ series, Life After People, for instance, bore the tagline ‘Welcome to Earth … Population: Zero.’
In the programme some unexplained and comprehensive disaster has befallen mankind and the planet returns rapidly to a natural condition. The programme’s CGI animators took evident pleasure in predicting the fate of a number of icons of modern architecture including Foster Associate’s Swiss Re HQ in the city of London, Pierre Koenig’s steel and glass Stahl House perched in the hills above Los Angeles and Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. Without maintenance, what Foster likes to call ‘London’s first ecological tall building’ will exist for three-hundred years as a vertical jungle – a truly green building – before its topples. With the reasons of the disaster unclear, the viewer is left to infer that the event which removed people from the planet is man-made.
Decay is a natural process but we live in an age when it is no longer clear what is ‘natural’, at least in traditional terms. Global warming, developments in biotechnology and genetics mean that we cannot maintain a neat divide between the natural and the man-made. Often, understanding of this fact is forced on us by events. The woods and fields around Chernobyl were, apparently, superabundant in the years after the disaster. In the light of the explosion in the nuclear reactor, reports of mammoth mushrooms and apples cannot be distinguished from other troubling accounts of mutant fish and birds. But for a young generation of designers who see a future for their skills in the applications of biotechnology, new nature is a world of opportunities. The processes of decay are not, for them, something to be eschewed but to be harnessed. Tuur van Balen – a graduate of the Design Interactions Programme at the Royal College of Art – has made interventions into the field of synthetic biology to speculate on our possible futures. His ‘Pigeon D’Or’ project – developed with biochemist James Chappell – speculates on how pigeons might be further ‘redesigned’ (after all, they have been bred for racing for years). If fed with a special harmless bacteria, the metabolism of these urban ‘pests’ could be modified. Pigeon droppings could become a detergent, cleaning the streets and car windows on which it lands. A ‘waste’ which harbours disease and damages stone and brickwork could become a useful substance. A speculative and much exhibited project, van Balen’s ‘Pigeon D’Or’ contains a truly provocative proposition. It is not that we need to change our attitudes to decay but that we can change decay itself.