Transforming Loss Through Landscape
Since September 11 and Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, our country perhaps recognizes ruin with less difficulty, less reluctance. But ruin is more than barren landscapes and decomposed architecture. Ruin is the emotional gravity of loss that exists within all of us. From losing a loved one, to separating from a lover, to mourning who we once were, loss is inevitable. Acknowledging sites of ruin allows us to reflect upon and honor these scars.
More than a decade ago, I traveled to Coney Island intending to conduct archival research on the Premature Baby Incubators exhibition—a public demonstration of nurses and doctors resuscitating infants on the brink of death, in front of a paying audience—but it was the magnetism of a ghostly boardwalk and condemned roller coasters that resonated loudest. This formative moment was when I first recognized the undeniable pull of my surroundings as an influence on my personal identity.
Shortly thereafter, I continued my pursuits of the land in Centralia, PA—a town whose underground coal mine fire, ignited in 1962, continues to wreak havoc for the handful of residents who remain, a fire that (literally) scorches the land beneath the residents’ feet and may continue to do so for hundreds of years. The same is true of my experiences in Old Shawneetown, IL—a river town that has suffered centuries of floods, causing the majority of its residents to seek higher ground inland while diehard individuals and structures remained. Finally, I turned my attention thousands of miles away to that Western ruin par excellence—Pompeii.
In the company of these and other sites, I have sought solace sitting among markedly empty plots of land and rusty abandoned structures. I would stare, hours upon end, into the spatial deficiency and deterioration of my surroundings, profoundly aware of their brokenness. I found myself imagining these sites as they would have looked years prior, replaying in my mind the gradual changes in terrain from then to now. Something revelatory was occurring. Piecing together geography was like picking up lost pieces of my past, and somewhere between shifting spaces and times of narrative fragments and feelings, I could see myself reflected in the land. In ruin’s company, I feel the presence of my own haunted past.
To more fully explore these encounters, I created At the Mercy of Ruin, a solo performance illuminating the metaphoric and embodied experiences of personal loss as understood in the wake of decayed geography. Straddling architectural absence and emotional presence, the performance is an articulation of the fluidity that exists between geography and autobiography, process and product, landscape and dreamscape, beauty and pain. Mercy tells the story of how landscapes and spectators interact, the latter utilizing imagination in accessing and assessing a site.
Throughout the 75-minute solo performance (supported by original video, sound, and recorded resident interviews), ruin serves as an impetus for memory’s resurgence on several levels: the unexpected death of my partner, the estranged relationship with my alcoholic father, and my queer sexuality. From vacant plots of land scattered with debris, to abandoned homes painted in graffiti, and vines that quietly wrap themselves around a building’s exterior, physical ruin mirrors human ruin—a tangible manifestation of life’s accumulated losses.
While I use performance to speak about my losses, there is more at stake in this project than personal disclosure for its own sake. First, loss can teach us important lessons: to orient more fully to the present, to presence; to recognize forces beyond our control, moments and memories difficult to accept; and to appreciate and have empathy for those who stand in and must make sense of the aftermath. Second, we are all landscapes of human ruin, and while particular losses vary from person to person, loss is a common thread across humanity. Third, ruined landscapes are a reminder of hanging on, of working through life’s decay. Although structures collapse and environments evolve, ruin persists. When we choose to look human damage in the face, we open ourselves to the possibility of living stronger lives, incorporating that damage into a more whole, restorative future. Finally, whether experienced as sites of joy or pain, landscapes—environments of all types and locales—influence us in myriad ways, aiding us in memory, healing, and transformation.