Focus: Untitled (For Sale By Owner), 2011

Untitled (For Sale By Owner), 2011, by Swedish artist Annika von Hausswolff, consists of 15 gelatin prints documenting a series of American style bungalows in various states of decay. The houses have been abandoned and, though the windows may have been boarded, they have also been the victims of vandalism. The pillar supporting the gabled roof over one house’s porch has given way and caused the roof to collapse; another is burnt out. Overgrown vegetation in the unkempt yards that are often strewn with trash obscure some of the buildings features. The images are haunting and quietly powerful in the way that they speak of the fortune and misfortune of industry, the evolution of cities and economic ruin on a personal scale. Though no locations are provided, the subject matter recalls the decline of American industrial cities – Detroit, Michigan in particular.

While the images suggest a social study on the plight of workers’ housing, the art work also operates on other levels. It can, for example, be seen as a set of portraits revealing the withered faces of the structures. The images portray desolation with an understated sense of fascination, even beauty. They also make us wonder about their history: who built and lived in these houses, what did they mean to their owners or occupants, and why were they abandoned?

Then again, the work functions as reportage in that it presents a concise survey of a certain class of domestic architecture. In this regard it reminds us of Bernd and Hilla Becher‘s typologies. Such studies draw attention to the materials used in the houses’ construction and the stylistic tendencies evident in their design. It also draws attention to the format in which the images are presented. The grid forms an effective method that promotes visual analysis by letting viewers compare, contrast and devise their own conclusions about the artist’s intentions or the work’s content. The fact that the images are in black and white confers a sense of verity. The appearance of the gelatin prints may be the result of darkroom manipulation, but cannot have been Photoshopped. At the same time the artist’s choice of technology, much like the style, age and condition of these buildings, also tells of the medium’s obsolescence. The demise of these houses echoes film photography’s destiny. Their heyday is now firmly a part of the past.

A version of this work has been included in Annika von Housswolff’s current exhibition on show at Helsinki Contemporary, Helsinki, Finland, which runs until 22nd December 2013. The show questions photography’s content and how we make images following the switch from analog to digital technology.

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