Presented in partnership with WonderRoot by the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), The Future Is Behind Us is a curatorial project by Stephanie Dowda for the APC’s headquarters in the 1856 L.P. Grant Mansion. It’s the first of what are intended to be the visual-art components of the APC’s annual Phoenix Flies celebration of “living landmarks,” the historical structures that make up Atlanta’s perennially threatened sense of place—an amalgam of historical and architectural specificity continually overwhelmed by the “noplaceness” of globalized economic and cultural forces.
Dowda’s title is itself an implicit amalgam: it might allude both to the fact that, while most of the world’s cultures see the future as stretching out ahead, at least one regards the future as behind us—because we can’t see it. This is also the unhappy position of the Angel of History in the well-known parable by Walter Benjamin: blown backward into the unseen future by a storm called Progress, the angel sees the past as a growing pile of ruins that lies beyond hope of rescue.
It’s an excellent combination of concepts for an organization that is forever trying to rescue fragments of history endangered by neglect or by developers’ bulldozers.
The exhibition is in some ways more like an installation. Dowda gave five young photographers the commission to (in the words of the curatorial statement) “interpret the meaning of specific sites and the relationship history has with how the artists imagine the future of our city.” The resulting set of atmospheric black-and-white images is hung in a freshly created gallery, in which the still semi-ruined wall surfaces of the historic building contrast starkly with the plywood floor and newly installed track lighting.
The overall effect is haunting. Whether the installation should have been more interpretive is open to question, but in its present state, it highlights the dilemma facing the cause of historic preservation at a time in which the past is not so much invisible as it is unrecognized when we see it.
Jill Frank’s photographs of trees are a case in point. Magnolia, Whole Foods parking lot, Atlanta, 2012 is as descriptive a title as one could wish. But there is nothing in the title or in the photograph to let us know that, if the anecdote I was told is correct, the tree once stood in a historic baseball outfield and was thereafter fondly known as “the Outfield Tree.” All Frank’s photo tells us is that it’s a good-looking magnolia.
I am emphasizing what the viewer doesn’t know or can’t see because it informs judgments about whether a site is worth preserving or not. Frank’s trees would be worth saving as bits of nature whether they have historic significance or not. The humble buildings Nikita Gale documents in the contact-print diptych Blocks 1–3 from Six Blocks Series and Blocks 4–6 from Six Blocks Series are, based on this visual evidence, more ambiguous in terms of intrinsic interest. They clearly have a history, and judging from the number of boarded-up storefronts, it is an endangered one. Since the images are too small in contact-print format to make out details, it’s hard to say even what we are seeing, so we can’t make judgments. Perhaps that’s the point: most of the evidence of the everyday past (and present) is so easily overlooked that its disappearance is scarcely noticed.
Most of history is this kind of unreadable palimpsest, as Chris Carder’s digital photocollage Sweet Auburn reminds us. The image is lovely, but the specific details of what has been overlaid are mostly lost to the viewer.
Some things, on the other hand, are iconic, such as the twin smokestacks of the Fulton Bag Mill that appear in the Cabbagetown images arranged in groups of four in John Paul Floyd’s two pieces, each titled February 4th, 2012. Nothing in the title indicates the neighborhood in question, and no one not already familiar with Cabbagetown would know where to turn for interpretation of these images without having someone present to answer questions.
Does this matter? On-site questioning failed in the case of Chris McClure’s evocative image of the granite gates of a garden in a photo titled Lullwater Park, 2012: I was assured that these were on the Lullwater estate that is the residence of the president of Emory University, whereas in fact they are the entrance to a completely different garden on Lullwater Road. But they have significance as exquisite landscape architecture regardless of where they are, just as the stacks of Cabbagetown are an industrial icon regardless of what kind of factory (or lofts) they might be part of.
We can make up our own stories about all these photographs, but lacking any curatorial commentary, these images are aesthetic objects open to (mis)interpretation as to what we are seeing and why we are seeing it.
The Future Is Behind Us is meant to make an emotional case for why we should care about the places we are in danger of losing. Perhaps it would have been inappropriate for the curator to contextualize these photographs, or even to offer artists’ statements explaining why and how they chose to make the images they did.
But the exhibition is being presented in the surviving part of an Italianate house built by a Maine-born entrepreneur who came to Atlanta to help develop the railroads and, a few years later, found himself constructing the defenses against the besieging Union Army. The multiple ironies encoded in the L.P. Grant Mansion would make an excellent topic for an art installation; in many ways, the historical displays created by the Atlanta Preservation Center are already such a work of art. They simply aren’t recognized as such.
Obscured by newer construction, or left abandoned and semi-ruined, our historic buildings mean nothing to most Atlantans. When the Fox Theatre was narrowly preserved from demolition, its extraordinary blend of Middle Eastern and Egyptian fantasy brought back only unpleasant memories to some who had grown up compelled to use the “colored entrance.” This is a problem worth addressing.
Maybe next year’s art component of The Phoenix Flies should be an Atlanta version of Fred Wilson’s famed transformations of historic objects and spaces, showing us the meanings that were already there, hiding in plain sight.
But there is too much other, much more elementary work to be done: The APC acknowledges that it has been unable to afford to provide adequate photographic documentation of Atlanta’s threatened structures, much less use them to create new works of art. Perhaps this would be a way for Atlanta to Celebrate Photography: it would be interesting if ACP were to partner with APC.
Thanks to Stephanie Dowda’s efforts, those of us who had never visited the L.P. Grant Mansion have been made to think about such possibilities. To extrapolate from William Gibson’s famous observation, the future lies all around us, but is unevenly distributed.
Disclosure: Stephanie Dowda and Nikita Gale are members of this publication’s Board of Directors. In pursuit of featuring work that significantly contributes to cultural discourse, as well as our commitment to transparency, our policy is to disclose instead of exclude.
The exhibition The Future Is Behind Us continues at the Atlanta Preservation Center and is open by appointment through March 31, 2012, with curator and artist talks at 7PM, Wednesday, March 21.