A small island off the coast of south-western Japan named Hashima, or Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), used to be a coal mining facility topped by a monstrous maze of buildings. In the 60′s, it was the most densely populated location on Earth.
Abandoned in 1974, the Battleship Island turned into a Ghost Island and soon became one of the most famous spots for urban exploration. The island is increasingly gaining international attention not only generally for its modern regional heritage, but also for the housing complex remnants representative of the Taishō period [1912-1926] to the Shōwa period [1926-1989] of Japanese history. It has become a frequent subject of discussion among enthusiasts for ruins.
The sheer quantity of photographs of abandoned buildings and the frequency with which they are created testifies not to how easy they are to produce, or to the fact that they have become a cliché, but to the depth of our fascination with seeing our world destroyed.
In an oft-quoted line from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility”, Benjamin states that modern humanity’s “self-alienation” has become so intense “that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
Humans have become so unconcerned with their own-long term wellbeing that they can now watch the world around them being destroyed – and even enjoy it as spectacle. It should not be surprising, then, that architectural obliteration, and the unrealized futures that every one of those buildings implies, should be one of the most perennial themes discussed by travelling bloggers.
Photographs shared by urban explorers of Gunkanjima do not just document the physical details of a location but also help to place the location in a much larger history of social change. The hulking blast furnaces, apartments, and hospital wards are bookmarks of often incomprehensibly vast economic processes; they give shape to an industrial history of this continent. Given time, we could track larger shifts – the outsourcing of manufacturing, transformations in consumer goods, the disappearance of mass assembly lines – through the spatial residues of these very buildings. Taken together, it might be more accurate to say that tourists who set foot on Gunkanjima are historians, not photographers at all – their textbooks visual, their evidence not cited but expertly composed in black and white.
By keeping a blog, I will make frequent updates throughout the six weeks of the SURE [Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience] project, researching travellers’ interactions with the island, their impressions and opinions. I will compare travellers’ notes and experiences, to see if tourism in Gunkanjima could be classified as either dark tourism [exploring sites associated with death and tragedy] or disaster tourism [traveling to disaster areas as an act of curiosity], and if it bears any similarities to European or American discourses of ruins. I will explore how Gunkanjima’s ruins are portrayed in popular culture and contemporary art and how that portrayal is in tone with the urban exploration essence – “going places one shouldn’t go”.
Benjamin, Walter, (1968). Hannah Arendt. ed. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations. London: Fontana. pp. 214–218.