Why should urban decay matter? Shattered architecture, debris, collapse. These are hardly remarkable. Yet we cannot help glancing - nervously, disgustedly, perhaps even a little deliriously - at the crapulous fillets of our towns and cities. But what have they to do with most of us? And surely they don't matter, anyway. The developer will be along soon, spinning into town like a curling-stone, preceded by a covey of ice-polishing architects, PRs and planning poodles.
We still notice, though. We look. We frown. It's the three-car- smash- on-the hard-shoulder reflex, via the 18th-century's artistic decay-meister, Giambattista Piranesi: our minds may be coddled by the glissandi of urban regenerations, body makeovers and self- righteous personal-development regimes, but we know - yes, we really do know - that there's more. And that, sometimes, "more" may only be flecks of peeling paint, the gurning faces of cracked saints' heads, battered wrecks, or a handful of dust.
These images, taken with great care by Dan Dubowitz (his camera tripod sandbagged during lengthy exposures to kill the slightest vibration) are telling. But why? Are they transcendentally beautiful, or just deceitful, polychromatic art-poop? The question is troublesome: we love ambiguity, of course, but preferably on our own familiar terms. Ambiguity should be problematic but, too often, it's simplified. It becomes a simplistic get-out clause, a trusty default setting. Why ferret around for whys and what-ifs when it's easier to murmur, "Whatever".
Even so, we may gaze a little guiltily at Dubowitz's visions of the Ancoats district in Manchester - the world's first inner-city industrial zone at the beginning of the 19th century - or at the photographer's take on the defunct Cardross Seminary in Scotland. No worries, though: ambiguity usually invokes that greatly degraded modern salve, irony. The unclassifiable greens and greys of the seminary walls - now, wouldn't it be great to find those in one's Fired Earth tile catalogue? And just look at the pale plasmic light in the container-load of statues at Gorton Monastery in Manchester...
Guilt can be a luxury, of course, a kind of self-retail therapy. But these images are much more than walk-on-the-wild-side therapy. They remind us of stuff that we are inclined, if not desperate, to forget: context, environment, time, complexity, loss, unpredictability. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who will receive the Royal Institute of British Architects' internationally coveted gold medal next month, has said that "context is shit".
Nicely ambiguous, that. Does he mean that context is irrelevant, or that it is literally, and even ideally, shitty? Koolhaas also insists, via dense research, that dysfunctional urban sprawls such as Lagos are the Apocalypse Now models of Western cities to come, and that we'd better get with the program.
More than 10,000 people did just that in New York City's Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in the first week of the current exhibition of Dubowitz's images of Cardross Seminary, Gorton Monastery and the Renaissance convent-cum-jail at San Gimignano in Tuscany. This exhibition is coming to Manchester's Cube Gallery in June, but in the meantime, his Ancoats pictures are being shown at the city's Metrolink Piccadilly station. It must be one of the most potent free shows in the UK.
Dead space is fertile. It encourages us to trespass, to slink into something - interzone, dream state, coma? - that resembles the past, but also happens to be the present and the future. Dubowitz's image of the finishing- room at Ancoats's Murrays Mills presents us with two ironing-boards, a steam press and a rippling, oleaginous floor-covering that seems to have curdled and set solid like Thorntons toffee. The cotton and clothing industry may be dead, but we could be looking at an installation by Joseph Beuys in, say, London's Serpentine Gallery. …