There is a certain beauty in a place or object’s state of decay. The textures and color palate that develops from abandonment or disaster can be visually seductive—even romantic. Using her camera to investigate spaces whose beauty is a product of destruction, Swedish photographer Helene Schmitz has travelled the globe in search of landscapes and spaces where time and nature’s ruthlessness have created unconventional beauty.
Published in conjunction with Schmitz’s exhibition at Dunkers kulturhus, Borderlands includes four distinct suites of photographs that explore the complex relationship between humans and nature. The slim, clothbound volume opens with “Earthworks,” a series of abandoned colonial Namibian homes filled with sand, then moves outdoors to the lush kudzu-covered valleys of the southern United States in “Kudzu Project.” It visits the light-filled greenhouses of an overgrown butterfly farm in the Suriname jungle in “Sunken Gardens,” and finally enters “Livingrooms,” the scorched and crumbling interiors of Schmitz’s childhood home, ravaged by fire. Each chapter is preceded by introductory text in both English and Swedish. On the surface, Borderlands could be interpreted as a book about fantastical environments, but upon closer inspection, the photographs reach beyond depictions of surreal surroundings. The images are more than aesthetically pleasing ruins. Each series represents the forces of nature overriding man’s weak attempt to tame it.
In her introductory text, exhibition’s curator Lena Wilhelmsson states that the scenes portrayed in Borderlands are, “spaces that provoke questions, spaces to get lost in.” Created first by man, each environment has been affected by accident or neglect, allowing nature to take its toll. Whether Schmitz photographs a room filled with wind-swept dunes, or a forest’s edge smothered by invasive, albeit beautiful, plant life, how the spaces came to be in their current state of surrender to the elements is never explored. With each turn of the page, the viewer shares the photographer’s experience of happening upon these unusual scenes and pondering the time and circumstances that brought them to their present form.
These photographs, when complied together into a book, illustrate the complicated—and often contradictory—beauty of the natural world. Nature runs amok throughout the book’s pages, but Schmitz’s photographs are quiet. Devoid of people, Schmitz’s unbiased viewpoint makes it nearly impossible to tell if we are looking at a space or landscape that was forgotten years, months, or centuries ago. The book’s size helps to acknowledge that these places are not of grand scale, but microcosms of a larger phenomenon. Though the environments may be strange and foreign—contained to a room or small piece of land—the broader themes are universal.