Project by Dennis Maher
“In the island of Ortygia, near Syracuse, there was a fountain Arethusa, “the gusher”; in the Peloponnese on the west coast there was a river Alpheus. A persistent belief existed that between fountain and river there was an undersea connection, and that any object thrown into Alpheus would appear again in Arethusa.”
—Preface to Arethusa and the River-God
Ovid, The Metamorphosis: Selected Stories in Verse
This work documents a series of installations undertaken upon an active demolition site in Buffalo, NY in 2005. Throughout the duration of the project, I was employed as a demolition laborer on the site of the Farrar Mansion, a historic structure (c. 1870) that was once home to steel baron Chilion Farrar. The building had fallen into disrepair and was vacant at the time that I was contracted to work on it.
My responsibility as a member of the demolition crew was to clear 1500 sq. ft. of interior space on the third floor of the mansion. Over the course of a sixteen-day work period, and according to the supervisor’s instructions, various wall, floor, and ceiling components were removed layer by layer from the building’s interior. Materials designated to be saved were taken to adjacent storage locations. The remaining debris was cleared from the premises.
Each night, after the day’s labor had ended, I returned to the site, collected those materials that were removed during the day, and assembled them in new arrangements on the site. The installations were documented photographically and were then dismantled. All materials were returned to their prior locations before the next work day began. The resulting photographic images record a series of events which solidified and dissolved within an environment of accelerated change.
The titles of each of the assembled works are borrowed from the creation mythology described in Book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a narrative that begins with the formation of land, sea, and air, recounts the emergence of shelters, and concludes with eyes on the rising sun. My aspiration was for the works to mirror landscape transformations, and to provoke resonances with naturally occurring phenomena.
Collectively, the installations functioned as a foil to the production machine that prevailed during the 8-hour work day. During the nights, my role as an autonomous author was re-asserted amid the residue generated by this machine. I approached the site each night as the double of my un-making self—as someone who was complicit in the site’s un-doing, but who endeavored, against the fresh memory of a day’s work, to find the site anew. The protest implicit in the project necessitated the machine in order to yield a landscape of counter-production, but under the cover of night I could forget my previous destructive imprints.
As I reflect on this project today, almost 8 years after its execution, my thoughts are unquestionably colored by the fact that the renovation of the mansion was never completed and that the building is still vacant. I am tempted to see the photographic records as materialist drawings that traced and re-assembled the site in order to counteract the pull of progress. Each installation was a form of confrontation between my body and the momentum of the site’s future constitution. The impending transformation of the place must have been slowed by my nightly efforts to resist the entropy of each laborious day.
Dennis Maher is an artist, architect, and educator whose work explores relationships between HOUSE and CITY. For the past 10 years, his projects have engaged processes of disassembly and reconstitution through drawing, photography, collage and constructions. In 2009, Maher established the FARGO HOUSE, a center for the urban imaginary in Buffalo, NY. Maher is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at SUNY, University at Buffalo, where he has taught since 2004.