Urban Retreat

Mitch Cope's 2004 drawing
Mitch Cope's 2004 drawing "Fortifications Detroit" is featured in "Shrinking Cities," a massive exploration of metropolitan areas in decline. (Courtesy Of The Artist Via Museum Of Contemporary Art Detroit)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007


Mitch Cope, an artist from Detroit, is standing in front of an elegant bench that is rough-hewn and sleekly contemporary. The light-colored wood has a tendency to crack, but still, it's a bench anyone with an eye for design would be happy to own.

Cope's bench was made from a tree known locally as "ghetto palm," a fast-growing species native to China that has taken on opportunistic new life in the many open spaces of Detroit's lost neighborhoods.

"By how old the tree is, you can tell how long the land has been abandoned," says Cope, a soft-spoken man in his 30s. The bench is part of an art project known as "Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop," in which Cope and his collaborators, Ingo Vetter from Sweden and Annette Weisser from Los Angeles, show how an arboreal nuisance, a.k.a. Ailanthus altissima, can be harvested, milled, dried and fashioned into benches -- suitable for use in the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), where it is on display.

It is also part of a dazzling and provocative new international exhibition, "Shrinking Cities," which is so big it occupies two of Detroit's premier museums, the fledgling but edgy MOCAD (which opened in October) and the established and respected Cranbrook Art Museum in the suburbs.

It's rare for an exhibition to feel so dense and elemental and important all at once. But "Shrinking Cities," which originated in Germany, explodes the notion of an art and architecture show by expanding it to include sociology, history, city planning and demographics alongside video, photography, conceptual art, poetry, music and just about every other kind of currently fashionable artistic production. In one gallery you find charts and maps and animated graphs that show how many cities have expanded and imploded over the past century. In another, there's a video about how people in the areas outside Detroit are exhuming their dead relatives from urban cemeteries for reburial, closer to home, in the vastly expanding suburbs.

Holding it all together is not so much an overarching thesis but a theme: how cities shrink, sometimes unto death. Despite its sprawling and sometimes contradictory content -- some artists exult in decay while others seek to mend it -- the tone is consistent. If this show could talk, it would sound like the prose of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the author of "On Death and Dying," whose willingness to simply observe and document the terrifying process of death somehow undid so much of the mystification and panic it inspires in us.

It may seem odd, when newspapers are full of stories about desperate urban overcrowding, sprawling slums and shantytowns, and the environmental devastation of our planet's exploding population, to devote so much attention to "shrinking" cities.

But as cities in Asia, Africa and South America are overwhelmed by growth, others are getting smaller. "Shrinking Cities" focuses on the 25 percent of world cities that are losing, rather than gaining, population (according to the curator's statistics). Over the last century, that amounts to 350 of the world's largest urban areas (defined as cities with populations of 100,000 or more). The project was funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, and is focused on four regions where the change has been precipitous: Detroit, the Liverpool/Manchester area in the United Kingdom, Ivanovo in Russia, and the Halle/Leipzig region in Germany.

Detroit and Liverpool/Manchester lost population as their industrial economies fell into disarray. Ivanovo, a textile city some 150 miles northeast of Moscow, went to seed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when its long-stagnating but subsidized industry simply collapsed under the pressure of competition from Turkey and East Asia. And the Halle/Leipzig region suffered huge population losses and horrendous unemployment as East Germany hemorrhaged 9 percent of its people between 1989 and 2000.

But cities shrink for many reasons, as a haunting animated map in the Cranbrook museum makes clear to visitors as they enter. The map's glowing lights, which represent loss, not growth, show that it isn't just industrial or political winds that scour the urban landscape. Disease, war and natural disasters do their work, too, in places such as Bangladesh, where 1970 floods from a monsoon killed some 300,000 people. In this country, shrinking cities became much more than a Rust Belt phenomenon in the late summer of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.

While shrinkage is a fact of life for many cities, it is a foreign idea in metropolitan areas such as New York, where artists, like everyone else, must struggle to find an affordable niche in the vast, bustling warrens of humanity.

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