"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." That's Faulkner. The longer I live, and in this town, the more intuitively I understand what he meant. The past stays with us both individually and collectively. I have a fondness for Portlanders who know what a building used to be, before it became whatever it is now --a Starbucks, a condominium, Fox Tower, a hole in the ground.
Inside Dante's, off Burnside, the shallow past lingers in traces of previous enterprise--the Metropolis and Chang's Mongolian Grill. The gas flame of the grill now burns needlessly, an eternal flame as unacknowledged tribute to a history of all-you-can-eat stir fry. Further northwest, Naito's swift exchange of two neon letters transformed Montgomery Ward into Montgomery Park, revising the building with admirable efficiency. More recently, the Old Lompoc tavern, on NW 23rd Ave, changed its name to the New Old Lompoc, in an oxymoronic effort to lurch forward, dragging the obviousness of its last incarnation along like a broken leg.
In Sung Kim's photographs of demolition and construction, developers have opted to sever themselves from the weight of history as they gut or topple older buildings. They're working to prove Faulkner wrong, to wrap up the past, and market the remnants as a charming, modernized pleasure. On a razed lot in historic Sellwood, where houses range from the 1800s, developers now advertise soon-to-be-built "vintage" town homes--the look of the past newly constructed.
One striking quality of Sung Kim's images is in the absolute lack of human life present. We see an empty stretch of Burnside, devoid of pedestrians and drivers, surrounded by deserted buildings and rubble. This visibly manifests the image cultivated by developers of the formerly industrial neighborhood as essentially abandoned. It's the same way modern Australian historians discuss the founding of Australia through convicts, as though aborigines hadn't already been living on the continent. It's the way we speak of Columbus discovering America, or Lewis and Clark as the first to reach the Pacific Ocean. It's the way developers talk about revitalizing a neighborhood, bringing life back, when people are already there.
For years I walked through industrial Northwest regularly, day and night. There were quiet, dark stretches, but always people around too. One night, walking home after seeing the movie Purple Rain, I came to a tire company building that was on fire. Tires are pretty much a petroleum product, a fossil fuel; they make a hot, smoky and relentless fire. It was a mess. It was a neighborhood event. People came from every direction, walking in the dark, faces distorted by the erratic light of flames. Billowing smoke in the night air made it theatrical, like we'd stepped into the movie, Purple Rain, except without the glamour. It was unplanned and social, and exciting to see an endless number of people all within easy walking distance, in an area considered deserted.
It makes sense that Sung Kim's photos are showing in a "Pearl District" gallery. His work both documents and benefits from the area's power struggle between the past and city planning. The photos exist only because of the destruction and construction underway. They'll be increasingly significant the further we move from the actual existence of the buildings pictured. They're able to be displayed because of the thriving art scene cultivated by First Thursday and fed by the population that frequents a neighborhood of over-priced, yardless living space and art galleries--the very reason the buildings are being demolished. And of course, galleries need art.
The photos provide a direct link to a rapidly disappearing landscape. As publisher Jason Epstein recently said, "Without a vivid link to the past, the present is chaos and the future unreadable." He's articulated a perhaps unspoken fear that encourages us to cling to what came before. Knowingly or not, we lean on the past with every effort to move forward, and in that way, the past isn't dead. It isn't even past.