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Windows on a world of economic decay: Lisa Furness exhibiting in BerlinLatest News ->

Wed 21 Dec, 2016.

Lisa Furness specialises in depicting scenes of the urban environment, and that is why she is the featured photographer in SomethingDark issue 3 “the built environment and urban decay”. So it was no surprise that when we organised our SomethingDark-in-Berlin exhibition Furness provided an important contribution in the form of six fine-art prints of her work in Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia, and Bristol (England).

However, unlike the other invited exhibitors – with the exception of SDk03 featured artist, Australian painter Ros Paton – we also invited Furness to provide written artist statements for her images. We requested this because of what we regard as the importance of her work in documenting the tangible evidence of systemic political–economic failure in much of the western world.

With our exhibition having less than one more month to run, we are pleased to provide here for SDk Latest News the text that Furness provided for the gallery walls in Berlin to accompany her pictures. The relevant text is laid out below each image:

Under the Sky. Copyright © Lisa Furness

Under the Sky (Ireland, 2014)

Before the Global Financial Crisis, Ireland’s confident economic boom was known as “the Celtic Tiger”; it was an era of easy credit, ambitious construction projects and a seemingly never-ending rise in property prices. When American financial institutions fell in 2008, taking global credit with them, Ireland’s banks crashed hard and fast. As the Irish government bankrupted itself rescuing banks and buying up toxic mortgages, construction across the country ground to a halt leaving homes half built – or completed but unsold and empty. By 2010 there were approximately 600 ghost estates in Ireland with an estimated 300,000 homes lying derelict.

The economic consequences of the Celtic Tiger’s death were painful to watch and shocking in scale. Irish-government net debt increased ten-fold to more than 100 per cent of GDP by 2012. Unemployment grew from 5 per cent to 15 per cent, and a new Irish diaspora was born as the young fled a state crippled by the double blow of debt and “austerity”. Between April 2009 and April 2014 the number of 15–35-year-olds in the country fell by nearly 200,000.

The economic crash also led to a rise in homelessness as funds dried up for public housing and wages fell. Evictions and repossessions added to Ireland’s astonishing number of empty houses, and bankruptcies left shop fronts boarded in high streets across the land. Despite the country’s purported economic recovery the apparently unstoppable rise in homelessness since the crash continues unabated: in February 2016 the number of people in emergency accommodation had increased by almost 50 per cent since the previous February. Human shapes huddled in sleeping bags, shivering in the doorways of empty buildings have become a common sight across the capital.

This country of homelessness and empty properties looks set to repeat a tragic cycle. House prices have been rocketing in Dublin, driven up by international investors who see the city’s housing crisis as an investment opportunity, in the process creating another property bubble that will be primed once again to come crashing down on the heads of the population.

In February 2014 I toured Ireland’s ghost estates to see for myself the concrete scars that lay across the soft flesh of this beautiful land. Everywhere I went I saw them, mountains of rubble and pipes; roofless houses; unglazed windows; great pits of stagnant water and rotting foundations. To my eye this careless vandalism wreaked on the landscape, the brutality of these forms and the completeness of their abandonment were at one with the brutal carelessness of market forces, ruthlessly pursuing profit and leaving only debt and rubble in their wake.

As I bore witness to these things, one word kept repeating in my head: Wasteland.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images …

– extract from The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)

Porto Windows. Copyright © Lisa Furness

Porto Windows (Portugal, 2014)

The historic centre of Portugal’s second city had started to empty and decay before the Global Financial Crisis threw the country’s economy off the rails. The beautifully crafted buildings that adorn this UNESCO World Heritage Site cost too much to maintain, and the city’s population has for decades been gradually relocating to modern housing developments in the suburbs. The grand old houses, hundreds of years old, now gently crumble alongside the derelict factories, shuttered shops and abandoned cinemas.

When the crash of 2008 toppled financial institutions worldwide several of Porto’s biggest banks were hit especially hard due to a history of bad investments, embezzlement and accounting fraud. In a now-familiar story, the Portuguese state tipped itself into crippling debt bailing out failing and corrupt banks, and then proceeded down the road of further bailouts, imposed “austerity”, falling wages, youth unemployment, generalised economic crisis, and finally hunger and rising homelessness for the Portuguese people. In 2014 Portugal registered a ten-year sequence of continuous increases in debt-to-GDP ratios, which doubled from 2004 to 2014. In 2014, combined sovereign and personal debt in Portugal was a Eurozone record of 380 per cent.

There is no sign of the crisis ending, with 2016 seeing more stories of bank corruption and rising numbers of “non-performing loans” threatening to ravage the Portuguese economy yet again.

When I visited Porto in the summer of 2014 I was struck by the astonishing beauty and faded grandeur of the city centre as well as its sense of abandonment. There are roughly 70,000 derelict buildings in this city; in 2013 twenty shops closed per day in the city centre, where around 20 per cent of all properties are now empty. The story of the buildings appeared mirrored by that of the people: proud, gaunt, aged (as the youth had gone searching for work in other countries) and abandoned to poverty and decline. Portugal’s population flight had a massive effect on Porto: in 1991 Porto city laid claim to more than 300,000 inhabitants; by 2014 the number had dropped to 230,000.

The human misery caused by the Portuguese crisis was striking. Austerity saw huge cuts in healthcare funding. The board of one of the main hospitals resigned in 2014 saying it was no longer possible to run the hospital on its remaining tiny budget. It now costs a flat fee of €40 to go to a hospital’s ER for emergency treatment, resulting in people on the lowest incomes avoiding hospital visits, hoping to heal by themselves, or until their health problems become too acute to ignore any longer. Portugal’s suicide rate rose alongside its unemployment rate and the Portuguese now consume nearly double the number of anti-depressants compared with other European citizens.

Hunger and poverty are palpable in this architecturally rich city, but so is the resilience of its people. As investors buy up the grand old empty houses in the city centre to replace them with hotels, busily remodeling this unique place into yet another homogenous tourist town, another story is unfolding behind crumbling walls. Gradually tiny plots of disused land are being claimed as vegetable gardens, cooperatives are forming and the city’s abandoned inhabitants have learned to fend for themselves.

Galicija House Magic. Copyright © Lisa Furness

Galicija House Magic (Slovenia, 2014)

The story of a home. Through the ages the building stands, human lives and dramas unfolding within it: joy and despair, births, deaths and marriages. We live our lives in these structures and leave our stories etched into their walls.

As well as private and domestic stories, this building in Ljubljana has borne witness to some of the political debates that have raged throughout human history. Who has the right to a home? Is private property sacred? Is housing a luxury or a human right? How do we protect our cultural spaces from the brutalities of market forces?

This old house started off as a comfortable family villa. Several decades ago it passed into the hands of numerous inheritors who proceeded to dispute the property’s future. The story of a family home turned into a disputed inheritance is common worldwide, often ending in the building being left to collapse so the owners can sell the land.

Many years ago, this particular empty building was taken over by some of Ljubljana’s political squatters. They lived there communally and opened the building as a cultural and political centre; this centre they named Galicja, after a band of partisan fighters from the area who fought against German, Italian and Hungarian occupation in the 1940s. The project hosted artistic and educational activities and political discussions, as well as being a living home for a collective of people.

The various owners of the building greeted the Galicja squat with horror. For the only time in this sad history, they put aside their differences and united to evict the squat. This occurred about ten years ago and the building has been standing empty ever since.

The house then met the fate of all such properties. With no one to maintain it, blocked drains and small leaks quickly turned into fallen roofs and gaping holes in the structure. With no one to protect it the building became a scavenging site for desperate people who live from what they can find and who stripped the wires from the walls and carried away anything of value. Loved by the local political activists, the building was also used for occasional clandestine artistic events that have left their own marks on the walls.

When I crept through the house in November 2014, stepping carefully on rotten floorboards, I could see everywhere the traces of this building’s story. Political statements etched on walls, pools of paint from art gatherings, gashes in the walls where copper wire had been ripped out, and, behind this, the faded elegance and finery left over from its first life as a luxurious family home.

On the higher floors I found rooms filled with trash – plastic bottles, plastic bags. These were piled nearly to the ceiling and I wondered if someone had found a way to turn a profit from the collection of this refuse, as the chatarreros do in Spain. These heaps of plastic trash formed a pathway through the rooms, at the end of which was a hidden room in which someone had tried to create a little corner of comfort with soft toys and blankets, on a rotting bed. Exploration revealed several beds made up as if for a small family. The property was being secretly squatted by those who had nowhere else to go.

In 2014 a report by the Guardian newspaper found there were more than 11 million empty homes across Europe, and approximately six million homeless people.

City Shadows. Copyright © Lisa Furness

City Shadows (Bristol, 2006)

The British population is one of the most monitored in the world. Cameras sprout like branches from walls and fences, they squat in bubbles above our heads on every bus and train, and now they fly in drones above our rooftops.

There are an estimated 5.9 million CCTV cameras operating in the United Kingdom. That’s roughly one camera for every ten people. A report in 2015 estimated that people in urban areas are captured by around thirty surveillance camera systems every day – not individual cameras, but systems. The United Kingdom was already becoming a surveillance state in 2006 when I took this photo. Margaret Thatcher’s mistrust of the British public was replaced by Tony Blair’s paternalistic desire to keep us all safe from our own vices by watching our every move and legislating for all of our behaviour.

By 2011, with a coalition government in power, the police were using surveillance as a weapon against political protesters, sealing off roads that lead out of demonstrations and releasing the protesters one by one, photographing each person and recording their names, ages and addresses. In 2016 we have a new prime minister, Theresa May, who has consistently argued for UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, arguing that the convention “makes us less secure” and that it “adds nothing to our prosperity”. And, she seems very unlikely to halt the endless growth in the surveillance of the British population.

Windows. Copyright © Lisa Furness Fire Hose. Copyright © Lisa Furness

Windows, and Fire Hose (Bristol, 2007)

Both these images were shot in a disused chocolate factory in Bristol in 2007. For me they symbolise fifty years of decline in British manufacturing.

In the country that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and that once led the way in engineering, steel production and machine manufacture, the ghostly remnants of an industrial past are fading. The economy has shifted to one based on financial services, media and design. Most people are expected to take minimum-wage jobs in service industries and be happy with it. There is no grieving for a past where the country used to make useful products. Now we simply make money from money, and a huge part of the UK economy is based on the sale of London property to the highest international bidders.

The great Victorian factories that grace every British city have become embarrassing relics from a bygone era. Some have been renovated into luxury apartments well beyond the means of most of the population; others have been torn down to make way for retail centres.

This factory was one of the last survivors of industrial Britain, producing and packaging chocolates until 2006. After it closed down the local community conducted a passionate, ten-year struggle to keep the charismatic red-brick buildings standing and to fill them with homes, services and employment opportunities for local people. They successfully blocked one proposal by developers who would have erased all trace of it, and are currently monitoring the new owners who have demolished all but one of the original buildings.

City Shadows, Windows and Fire Hose are among Furness’ images featured in SDk03; to view the images in context, see SDk03 p. 10 (our Lisa Furness feature) and SDk03 p. 30 (our extensive interview with Furness). See also our pre-Berlin-exhibition Latest News item on Furness’ work, Contributor focus: Lisa Furness.

Under the Sky, Porto Windows and Galicija House Magic are from her latest body of wok; Under the Sky and Porto Windows are part of the ongoing SomethingDark-in-Berlin exhibition that will be open to the public until 14 January. See our SDk Updates item SomethingDark in Berlin exhibition extended to 14 January for information on the continuing SomethingDark-in-Berlin exhibition.

Text copyright © SomethingDark and Lisa Furness 2016. All images copyright © Lisa Furness 2006, 2007, 2014, 2016. All rights reserved.