In 2013, artist Ernestine Ruben (born 1931, U-M Stamps School of Art & Design, BSDes ’53) toured the once-famed industrial complex Willow Run in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Designed in the early 1940s for the Ford Motor Company by her grandfather, Detroit architect Albert Kahn, Willow Run was an exemplar of American defense manufacturing because of its efficient mass production of the B-24 Liberator aircraft during World War II. Despite early decades of productivity, Willow Run was slated for demolition when Ruben visited and photographed the site. Her grandfather’s role in the history of Willow Run underscored Ruben’s personal connection and served to embolden the artist’s reactivation through her photographs of this significant place in our collective memory.
The sequence of photographs on view—arranged right to left—parallels Ruben’s perceptive exploration of the interior landscape of Willow Run. Her camera alternately frames the industrial ruins in the cavernous space, which at the time of its opening was deemed the world’s largest room under one roof, and details of the now-defunct machinery. These documentary photographs are juxtaposed with photomontages in which she overlays imagined glimpses into her own body’s interior landscape with scenes of the barren industrial environment she found at Willow Run. The resulting compositions seem to breathe light and energy into the stagnant spaces and suggest a longing for a productive existence, undeterred by mortality, for both Willow Run and the artist.
An original film cocreated by Ruben and video artist Seth Bernstein (born 1984) and featuring an original score by award-winning composer Stephen Hartke (born 1952) will be screened in UMMA’s Forum throughout the exhibition. The film interprets Ruben’s photographs through a combination of image and sound, further stimulating new visual and sensory memories of Willow Run.
Jennifer M. Friess
Assistant Curator of Photography