New York

Michael Spano

Michael Spano’s black and white photographs document the wrecks of the bunkers that once formed what was known as the “Atlantic Wall”—Nazi Europe’s line of defense against Allied invasion. At times, Spano zeroes in on a bunker, revealing its peculiarly absurd if still ominous character; at others, he shows a bunker heroically isolated against bleak terrain that stretches to a distant horizon. Clearly, there is something more to these eloquently stark photographs than the urge to document the instruments of war: the bunker becomes a monument to human folly, a metaphor for the futility of civilization itself.

This is reflected in the conflict between manmade constructions and the natural environment—the latter’s inexorable triumph over and destruction of the former—that this series of photographs depicts. For Spano, the struggle between the two is of a fundamentally existential nature, a battle between life and death. Brutally hard concrete and soft grass are at war, and it is clear that, slowly but surely, the grass is winning.

In this series, which marks the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Spano seems to look ahead another half century to a time when these concrete structures will have completely crumbled and the passions that gave rise to them will be nothing but vague memories. At times the bunkers seem more like abstract forms than symbols of war, their evocative silence complementing the formal contrast between these brightly white buildings and the dark landscapes against which they are set. This compositional technique serves at once to distance us from the history of these structures and to see them as integral to the landscape in which they are placed. Spano always conveys a sense of the enormous, raw space in which he is operating. Even when the bunkers overlook populated beaches, the human figures below serve as nothing more than a means by which to measure the sheer size of these decaying structures and the expansive terrain they were built to defend.

In a few quasi-panoramic photographs, Spano shows us what these ruins look like from an airplane, as though he wants to return us in memory to the Normandy invasion, to ask us to marvel at the odds against its success. The impregnability of the bunkers was only a myth, he seems to suggest, though the war that destroyed them and the human beings who once inhabited them were all too real, as the wreckage shows. Spano gives us insight into the tragic meaning of these constructions, which will help us to remember them and their lesson when they have finally disappeared.

Donald Kuspit