‘When I pronounce the word Future, the first syllable already belongs to the past.’
Wisława Szymborska wrote this stanza in her poem The Three Oddest Words. When I read it, I feel a kind of vertigo, as it makes lucid that past, present and future are perpetual neighbours. But because we have come to define each as a distinct idea, assign each its own word and forever talk about each in different conversations, we perceive them to be separate, distant. We see the past as settled, the present as today and the future as what’s to come. Szymborska tersely, and poetically, unwraps this illusion of separation, instead writing of time as one permeable certainty, ceaselessly cascading into itself.
When I look a ruin, I experience a similar vertigo. Like Szymborska’s stanza, ruins contract time. Whilst they are indebted to a particular place in the past, they crumble into the present as the traces of abandoned futures; it is that same compression of once spacious temporalities. And as we realise their existence as past futures, ruins then testify that, inevitably, we are building our own ruins. They are relics and prophecies simultaneously; both in time and out of time, always. If I was to try and be more precise about what gazing upon ruins does, perhaps I would say that for the moment we do, we are made resoundingly aware of time.
And when I look at a photograph, I experience a similar vertigo because, like ruins, photographs are confessions of time. As Berger wrote, photographs cut across time, arrest it, as if the photograph was a vertical line across an unending and horizontal arrow. Yet a photograph’s arrest of time is, of course, a pretence — a dotted vertical line — and in its ostensible fixing of a moment, photographs make time’s persistence only more apparent. Again, we are made resoundingly aware of time.
So, when I am confronted with photographs of ruins, as I am in Odds and Ends by Marie Quéau, vertigo is inescapable. Time feels excruciatingly near, warped and palpable. But, importantly, the ruins in Odds and Ends do not place us, the reader, in the present. Instead, they are photographs of future ruins, photographed with a future’s gaze, throwing us forward into a world where everything starts with ‘post-‘: post-culture, post-technology, post-commodity, post-knowledge, post-human. Odds and Ends speculates on a world trashed, abused, torched, still smouldering from our actions but without us there. There is twisted, seared wood. A burnt-out car. A rank dump of plastic and food. Landfill as architecture. A fuselage — mangled and discarded. Wastelands that don’t end.
Odds and Ends speculates on a world trashed, abused, torched, still smouldering from our actions but without us there.
These ruins, our ruins, are strewn amongst photographs of a more primal world, one defined by fire, hard earth and unrelenting wind. When I first leafed through Odds and Ends, these two threads — organic and artificial — felt disparate. I could tell the difference between what we had made and what we had not. On a second reading, I was more doubtful. On a third, divisions teetered on nothingness. Perhaps it is because the photographs bleed to the edges of the page, creating a continuity where everything seems to break down into likeness. Or perhaps it is because there really are only dwindling distinctions in this future, where the organic and artificial are so enmeshed that corrugated iron appears no different than a slab of rock. Perhaps it is both. There is, admittedly, the occasional respite from these fading boundaries; photographs where the human hand is more present. Yet as a whole, Odds and Ends is a telluric totality of surface, texture, material and form, with the ruins we have left being unmanufactured by time, regressing into the earth. Even the cover of the book is the silver of deeply charred timber.
It is not, however, only what is in the photographs or the book itself that invokes such a visceral feeling of fated entropy, but how Quéau has photographed this future world. Her gaze feels deliberate, measured, static. Distant not in distance to the ruins but in their blank expression. And from this deliberate, measured blankness comes an assertiveness that persists throughout Odds and Ends. I see and feel myself amid the debris, close enough that in many photographs their haptic textures fill each frame with such clarity and fullness that they are almost overwhelming. Yet they never waver in their precise gaze. In this, Quéau deftly avoids the stultifying abstraction of so much speculative work that deals with the Anthropocene and what comes after. Odds and Ends looks far enough forward that it borders on science fiction, but it still feels real.
I would also venture to say that clarity in Odds and Ends is there to do more than simply create a convincing tale of the future. That it is there, perhaps, to incriminate. Quéau’s clarity repeatedly verges on a forensic frame, so much so that I think of Walter Benjamin’s rhetorical words that asked if it was the task of a photographer to ‘reveal guilt and point out the guilty’. Through its incessant and incriminating blankness, Odds and Ends does both; certainty of what has been and what has been done. I have no doubt that Quéau believes that the world really will end up like her photographs, and if pressed, could I say otherwise? Her chronicle is too compelling, her ruins too vivid, her stare too sure of who is to blame. Odds and Ends utters at every turn a conviction that Robert Smithson shared, namely that ‘the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness’.
What makes Odds and Ends all the more resolute is that it is a book of photographs. This may seem a redundant fact, but this fact tethers the future it depicts to the present, making it weigh heavily on my conscience in a way that it would not if Odds and Ends was a book of paintings. Quéau seems to be aware of this, given that she has gone to some length to make this fact known. In the fold-out index that succeeds the photographs, Quéau explicitly (and somewhat blankly) states where and when the work began and finished. We now not only feel that the photographs are real but are told so. And within the index itself, a grid of black and white thumbnails with precise descriptions and locations of each photograph makes certain we end Odds and Ends here in the present. In doing so, Quéau bluntly asks: if what you thought were the ruins of tomorrow are instead the ruins of today, what does that mean for the future? It is an abrupt, anxious end, but a necessary one.
There is another detail of the book I remain in a quandary about. If the index grounds our thoughts in the present, the poem that precedes the photographs does the opposite. Written by Amélie Lucas-Gary, the poem is exquisite, dreamlike. There are wild prairie lands, celestial lights, vacant monuments and teeming shadows; a world that feels at once primitive and yet not in the past. And at the centre, there is Lucie, a heroine that a withering population looks to for guidance amongst an unravelling existence. As a poem, I would change little — I am enticed completely. Yet to lead with such ethereal prose into a book that is, to me, so real feels somehow dissonant. If Quéau intended to use the poem to hurl us forwards in time, it does so absolutely. But it also pushes Odds and Ends further onto the bookshelves of science fiction. And that is the crux. Lucie may be synonymous with a collective future gaze wading amongst the detritus, but Odds and Ends is most pressing when it leaves us no room to imagine these ruins as anything but inevitable.
In Odds and Ends, there is no mythology, no grasping, no aversion. Only material and form, heat and wind. Irrefutable facts.
What to make of a book that appears so fatalistic? Even Quéau herself remarks that Odds and Ends is a vector for her anxieties about the future. Or, in bleaker terms, “an obituary for the planet”. At the same time, there might be a kind of cathartic stoicism to be found in such radical acceptance. Whilst Quéau has laid bare the inevitable ruin of our world, she has simultaneously laid bare a world free from the cloying illusions of idealism, consumer culture and oppression. In Odds and Ends, there is no mythology, no grasping, no aversion. Only material and form, heat and wind. Irrefutable facts. Can what I called a fuselage even be called a fuselage in this future, or is it just a heap of things? Here, amongst the trepidation that Quéau has so emphatically stirred, I learn to see solace.
If I looked at Odds and Ends as a work of activism, it would come up short. It points and it incriminates, makes crystalline that this future of debris is partly our doing, but it does not offer alternatives. And without that, it can only flounder to animate action — adding only to the ever-growing mound of thematised content. But I don’t think Odds and Ends is a work of activism. Instead, it is both a deeply personal ruination and a chronicle of a cosmic future. Quéau is certain we play a part in that future, but we are not the protagonists. What Odds and Ends does show us is the inevitability of what’s to come and the fleetingness of everything. Again, we are made resoundingly aware of time.