The blue tiles of an abandoned swimming pool have lost their lustre, exposed in an arid setting where rippling water has long-since drained away, paint peels from decorative arches, and only ghosts inhabit the darkened niches. In another location, a wheezing bed crouches at the centre of a decaying room, pocked with mould and mildew, black spots spreading across once-white walls, as caving mattresses heave themselves from the forlorn setting. Whoever inhabited this boudoir in better times has long been gone, their history traced across the space, their presence palpable in their silent absence. Welcome to the world of Gina Soden: photographer, urban explorer, and rising star of the contemporary British art scene.
Based in London, Soden scours Europe for abandoned, man-made sites, focusing her lens to capture their ethereal qualities. This is ‘urban exploration’ - AKA ‘urbex’ - at its very best: pushing beyond factual documentation of ruinous structures, Soden suffuses every photograph with a painterly lyricism that breathes life into decrepit spaces with haunting allure. Romantic with a capital ‘R’, Soden's work is a reverie of architectural decay, exploring the transcendental possibilities of entropy and transiency, the slow, creeping passage of time, and all of the beauty that accompanies spatial decrepitude.
Soden graduated from Thames Valley University in 2007, before being swept up in a string of group shows, which took her from Windsor to Hong Kong. In July 2012, Peter Blake spotted the rising talent, featuring two of her artworks in ‘Things I Love at The Fine Art Society’, a show at London’s oldest commercial dealership, curated by Blake to mark his 80th birthday. For the exhibition, Blake selected nearly 100 works of art, resulting in one of best attended shows on record for The Fine Art Society, with features appearing in The Times and on BBC News. From here, Soden's career exploded: a succession of prestigious awards poured in, from Emerging Artist of the Year, National Open Art, in October 2013, to finalist for Sky Arts Master of Photography TV competition, in May 2016. Meanwhile, group shows accelerated, allowing Soden’s work to seep across the continent, from London to Paris to Russia.
Solo shows gathered in the spaces in-between until, in May 2017 ‘Art in Ruins’ was revealed, Soden’s flagship solo show at Blacks Club, London. The press were enraptured, with features appearing in Financial Times, Dazed and Confused, Aesthetica, CNN, and GQ. Today, Soden’s work can be found in a number of high profile London haunts, including The Ned, Groucho Club, Goldman Sachs, Century Club, and Home House. In other words, Soden’s career soared form strength to strength in a heartbeat: and there’s no mystery as to why. From derelict asylums to long disused schools, ex-military complexes to crumbling chapels, Soden draws out the haunting character of the empty space, in a way that implicates the viewer: here you are, alone in this silent setting, lost and forgotten.
An experience of Soden’s work gives you one of those rare moments of transcendence, as you find yourself shifting beyond the surface of the frame, the reality around you falling away as the image reels you in.
’Urbex’ may be a contemporary term, in its relation to photographic documentation, but a fascination with abandoned space stretches far back across history. In the seventeenth century, a European obsession with Greek and Roman ruins inspired the work of pastoral painters Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. This was the dawn of a preoccupation that would carry firmly through into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: faux ruins, in the shape of grottos and follies, popped up in landscaped gardens, while Romantic poets roamed the countryside, seeking out “the darksome windings of a broken stair,” or “ridge of fractured wall,” as William Wordsworth wrote in ‘Monastic Ruins’.
Though staunchly contemporary, Soden’s work is in direct dialogue with these historical musings, lending it the depth and conceptual complexity that sets it apart from documentary urbex photography. Yet the question remains: why are we so fascinated by abandoned spaces? Why do artists find themselves drawn to these sites, gathering inspiration from their emptiness? As Soden’s oeuvre testifies, the abandoned space mingles fear with beauty, humanity with the inanimate. We are compelled by the controversies that surround these spaces - not only the public failure to maintain and conserve striking works of architectural importance, but the artistic audacity in gaining unlicensed access to off limits areas.
The sites remain anonymous in Soden’s work: nameless and placeless, all love and purpose has drained from these once-convivial corners. Aesthetically, as Soden’s work highlights, decay softens the textures and colours of the images: plumes of sunlit smoke dance on piano tops, wreaths of ivy wrap themselves around stolid pillars, and layers of dust besmear surfaces that used to shine. In the abandoned space, the spectacle is not only notional, but emphatically visual, too.
Looking at these moments, stilled in time by Soden’s powerful lens, we confront our deep-set enchantment with the places that time forgot, revealing something of our own humanity, and our need to create lasting and lively impressions. Soden's pictures tell a story of human histories, suffused with the presence of all those whose absence is writ large on these decaying spaces.
Written By Mae Losasso