Borrow, build, abandon

A haunting new photography exhibition captures an Olympic legacy abandoned.

Jamie McGregor Smith has a thing for empty spaces.  In the past, the British photographer has taken his camera to derelict environs as diverse as Detroit’s auto factories, Laybourne Grange’s abandoned lunatic asylum and Stoke-on-Trent’s forsaken pottery industry. He documents the decaying, the crumbling, the once useful  - now forgotten.

Recently, it is the un-peopled post-Olympic structures of the 2004 Athens Games that have attracted his attention. In a new project titled Borrow, Build, Abandon – now on display in London – he turns his gaze on the city’s failed exercise in legacy planning; a site that now sits almost entirely disused, accruing disrepair - a home for rogue vegetation, graffiti, even drying laundry. As journalist Helena Smith wrote after a visit last May, “Athens's Olympic park, once billed as one of the most complete European athletics complexes, is no testimony to past glories. Instead, it is indicative of misplaced extravagance, desolation and despair.”

McGregor Smith’s documentary series explores this legacy of destitution: “Eight years after the games came to a close,” he writes. “Only three of the 22 Olympic stadiums, built at a cost of $15 Billion, are currently in public use, the remaining requiring an annual £100 million in upkeep costs.”

Lessons on Olympic legacy, highlighted by the Barcelona and Sydney games, were shadowed in Greece’s case by pressures of completion and a delayed three-year construction timeline. Caused by political intervention and government elections, this rush for completion allowed little thought for post game usage and trebled its construction budget.

In  of our own moment of post-Olympic splendour, it’s no surprise that a photographer of Smith’s disposition was drawn to Athens. The product of political floundering, budget cuts and a lack of foresight, the buildings are a government’s failing embodied, and an example of what McGregor Smith calls industrial entropy – “the forces that effect the transition and the decay of matter and energy in a broader sense, evolving economic trends and industrial stability – a change that is natural and unavoidable.”

He further elaborates:

In the years of sovereign debt crisis, these white elephants of peer pressured national pride, much like the factory shells in defunct industrial cities, are testament to humans continued failure to comprehend inevitable entropic social change. We need to consider the possibility that all human construction in the future could have the technology of functional adaptation.

The work hopes to achieve an appreciation of aesthetic architectural qualities, in cohesion with their contextual relationship to the societies they were constructed for and by. In the cases of abandonment the effect of their power, achievement and status on human landscape, equally exaggerates their failure, in the context of their functional disestablishment.

With Boris Johnson at the helm of the London Legacy Development Corporation, permanent tenants secured for seven of the eight Olympic venues and a promise “to promote and deliver physical, social, economic and environmental regeneration in the Olympic Park and surrounding area”, legacy planning is undoubtedly an issue that London 2012 has enthusiastically addressed.

And yet these portraits – stark, unyielding, silent - are a curious reminder of an evolution that is often beyond our control. We can build it, but can we master it? We’ll wait and see.

Borrow, Build, Abandon: Athenian Adventures in Concrete Steel is Jamie McGregor Smith's first solo show; now on at the Print House Gallery, 18 Ashwin Street, London E8 until 3 October.

 

(All photographs courtesy of Jamie McGregor Smith)

An olympic stadium in Athens sits empty. (PHOTO: Jamie McGregor Smith)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era