Lindsay Harris
What Art Makes Possible

Ruins have long fascinated artists as a symbol of the passage of time. With the onset of Humanism in the fifteenth century, characterized by a curiosity about the lives and creative output of the early Greeks and Romans, artists began to turn their attention to the remains of ancient civilizations with newfound fervor. Rome emerged as the epicenter of this impulse, in no small measure due to ongoing discoveries of ancient buildings, sculptures, and wall paintings by contemporary archaeologists. The opportunity to see firsthand the accomplishments of earlier societies, and the power of time to ravage their integrity, triggered an association between ruins and nostalgia for a bygone age.

In contrast, the dozen artists featured in Regeneration perceive decay as brimming with possibilities. For some, photography offers a way to focus attention on the perpetual evolution of the landscape. Matrices of branches, vines, and leaves testify to nature’s inclination to recycle debris into new life. In other views, objects discarded in the course of daily activities—plastic bottles, a hair clip, an old shoe—make plain how humans catalyze landscapes’ transformations. Whether representing natural spaces or sites that people inhabit, these photographs compel us to reflect upon the ethics of environmental degradation. Which landscapes do we preserve from human intervention? Which, instead, do we sacrifice to human consumption, finding in their neglect patterns, lines, and forms that strike us with unexpected beauty?

The values we attribute to the built environment also take center stage in the exhibition. The industrial ruin emerges in Regeneration as a monument to the waning persuasiveness of modernity. The ambition associated with the age of the skyscraper, the automobile, and, slightly later, the movie theater fades in images that show the deterioration of these twentieth-century icons. The grandeur of monuments from earlier eras likewise comes into question in hand-crafted images that disintegrate historical representations of these sites. These works call attention to the very nature of preservation, in which we select certain elements of our built surroundings to preserve, and others to let go.

Finally, this exhibition foregrounds the capacity of art to help generate resilience in the face of destruction due to violence. The traumas of war, racism, and their consequences leave traces that can be seen and that remain invisible. Several of the artists in Regeneration have developed creative processes that use the elements of time, meditation, and metamorphosis inherent in art-making to acknowledge these scars and try to heal them in however small a way. In their work, symbols of hatred and intolerance decompose into new forms that hold within them the promise of a fresh start, a changed perspective, or, at the very least, a moment of reprieve to reflect upon the possibilities that lie ahead.

Lindsay Harris is the interim Andrew Heiskell Arts Director. She is a historian of photography and a 2014 Rome Prize Fellow in modern Italian studies, when she worked on her forthcoming book, An Eye for Progress: Photography and Primitivism in Italy, and organized an exhibition on contemporary photographers’ fascination with Roman sculpture. Harris served as the Academy’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities from 2014 to 2018 and curated Matera Imagined/Matera Immaginata: Photography and a Southern Italian Town.