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“Reclaiming Ruins: The New York State Inebriate Asylum and Other Abandonscapes,” which is on view through Dec. 19 at the Binghamton University Art Museum, features the photographs of A.D. Wheeler.
Art Museum highlights ‘abandonscapes’
September 15, 2015Tweet
The Binghamton University Art Museum will open its fall season with an examination of some of the abandoned structures in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
“Reclaiming Ruins: The New York State Inebriate Asylum and Other Abandonscapes,” featuring the works of Elmira-based photographer A.D. Wheeler, opens with a reception at the museum’s Main Gallery from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17. The exhibition is on view through Dec. 19.
“There is a romantic attachment that people often have to these sites,” Binghamton University Art Museum Director Diane Butler said. “And these types of photographs have become increasingly popular. There have been a number of photographers who have gone to Detroit, for example, to photograph sad, decayed places.”
Butler’s original concept for the fall exhibition was a photography exhibit – such as a competition – that would attract a Broome and Tioga County audience.
“We’ve been working hard to reach out to the University community in the last few years,” she said. “I thought it was time to do something that would be appealing to the (local residents) as well.”
The exhibition found its theme in spring 2015, when the University announced that it would take stewardship of the vacant Binghamton State Hospital – formerly the New York State Inebriate Asylum and known locally as “The Castle.”
“It’s hard for photographers to get in and photograph the site, so I was happy to learn that A.D. Wheeler had been in (The Castle), with permission, in 2013,” Butler said. “We asked if he would be interested in showing his photos and putting them in a larger context of abandonscapes – or ruined sites.”
The exhibit will feature nearly 30 Wheeler photographs (including those of The Castle) selected by guest curator Julia Walker, an assistant professor of art history who specializes in modern and contemporary architecture and urbanism.
“What I like about the photographs is that they are beautiful,” Walker said. “They grab your attention and send your imagination wandering: Who occupied this place? What stories have these crumbling walls seen? But at the same time, Wheeler is insistent on telling the history of these places. He does his research.”
Walker will speak at the opening reception, discussing the abandonscapes and “how we see and don’t see them.”
“I’m from central Texas, which is not an industrial landscape,” she said. “I’m struck by the way that people who grew up here are trained not to notice these buildings, particularly when they are abandoned. … I want people to see the things they don’t normally see. Let’s look at (the buildings) and think about why they are there. What was it? What will it be? What is the plan?”
Wheeler, in fact, advocates for the preservation of some of the sites. Trying to find a balance between restoring and improving a site and preserving the original character can often be delicate, Butler said. In November, the Binghamton University Art Museum will examine the issue further by hosting a symposium on “conservation controversies.”
The event, sponsored by the Kenneth Lindsay Study Room Fund, will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, in Room 258 of the Fine Arts Building.
“At first glance, it might be obvious to restore a site,” Butler said. “But there are a lot of decisions to be made about the extent to which you restore it to what it was. Sometimes it isn’t possible because of codes. How much are you going to improve a building – and in doing so, how far do you go from what the building originally was?”
Preservation can be complex, Walker added, because – unlike The Castle – some buildings are simply in poor condition.
“To preserve is not efficient (for some buildings),” she said. “It can be an act of love instead of a good business decision.”
Other public talks are planned for the “Reclaiming Ruins” exhibit. Wheeler will discuss his works at 5 p.m. Oct. 1, while Roger Luther from the Broome County Historical Society will discuss “Binghamton’s Castle: Its History and Recent Developments” at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 22, and “Abandoned Asylums of New York State” at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18. All of the talks will take place at the museum’s Main Gallery.
Luther, who has studied and photographed The Castle for several years, is also curating a complementary, mini-exhibition about the site in the lower galleries of the museum. The exhibition will highlight the history of the The Castle and feature original diaries and letters dating back to its mid-19th century design by Isaac Perry. The mini-exhibition will also include Luther’s photos and prints from historic photographic glass plates showing some of the facility’s former patients.
“What Roger has done is find some of the stories associated with these individuals, but he has changed the names,” Butler said. “You get a sense of the cross-section of people – ages, life circumstances – who ended up in the asylum.”
Butler said she hopes exhibition visitors will see the Binghamton University Art Museum as an “open and welcoming place” as they study the importance of the region’s abandonscapes.
“A.D. Wheeler is hopeful that his photography won’t just reinforce nostalgia for the past, but inspire people to try to save places,” she said. “We are at the point of possibly being able to save The Castle. If the museum can play a role in that, it would be lovely.”