Robert Polidori has an eye for devastation. His current exhibition of 58 photographs at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal bears witness to the aftermath of civil unrest, natural disasters and man-made catastrophes. The visual impact of the rubble reverberates through the mind and illuminates social histories full of anguish, violence and neglect. The images are at once beautiful and distressing; they are elegant portraits of tragedy.
The Pripyat and Chernobyl images document buildings that were abandoned in the Exclusion Zone after the accident in 1986. The Control Room of Reactor 4 is replete with the panic it once housed. Burned-out, empty and overbearing, the room contains consoles and system monitors that are covered in reddish and pink stains. Panels have been forced open and a loose wire lies on the floor.
The yellow-beige walls are riddled with bullet holes in the Beirut series. A bunker made of sandbags and plywood still stands in one room, though the wood supporting the shooting holes has begun to bow. In another room, you can see the cityscape through the giant chunk of wall that was blown off and a plant has begun to grow up through the wreckage that was once the room’s floor.
In one of the New Orleans pictures, there is a white car parked in front of a white house. The sediment lines that trace across them line up so perfectly that you might think that someone had drawn the lines on by hand after the photo had been printed. On Canal Street, there is a room whose floral wallpaper has been soiled, turned a deep rose colour and is peeling off like it has suffered massive heat blisters.
Polidori’s architectural compositions are stark and full of vibrant colours, subdued and brimming with memory. The dilapidated rooms seen in the Versailles and Havana series depict relics of grandeur in decline. The New York City apartments are simply disordered and full of clutter. What makes them so noteworthy is the way in which they are captured. By using a large-format camera, he is able to create sizable prints that really emphasize the details of decay. Not only do you see the vestiges of lives that are no longer there, but you also see the way that deterioration has redefined the space and become its new occupant.
The concept of rooms as states of being – as “memory theatres” – is what drew Polidori to them and the belief that they look better in photos than on cinematic screens is what attracted him to photography. Dishevelled and crumbling, densely packed and disordered, these spaces are the ruinous spectacles of history and while we may not need them to serve as reminders of past events, they give us a tangible connection to them. They show us where life happened.
Born in Montreal in 1951, Polidori received his Master’s in film from SUNY Buffalo before making the transition to photography. He is currently a staff photographer for The New Yorker.
Robert Polidori’s exhibit runs until September 7 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 185 Rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest. The museum is open from 11h to 18h Tuesday through Sunday except on Wednesdays when it is open until 21h.