Ruin Lust

This exhibition at the Tate Britain is absolutely brilliant – a mix of art and architecture including some of my favourite artists and some welcome discoveries. Ruins seem odd objects of desire, but they feature prominently in British history, from the 18th century when young men with wealth did the Grand Tour, usually ending among the remains of Rome, and returning with art and artefacts for their mansions.

The notes accompanying the show state: “Ruins are curious objects of desire: they seduce us with decay and destruction. The ruin may remind us of a glorious past now lying in pieces, or point to the future collapse of our present culture. Certain ruins are preserved as memorials, others demolished or rebuilt. For centuries artists have been attracted to ruins, seeing new ideals of beauty in their desolation, as well as sublime warning s from the past. ..

Classical ruins haunted and inspired artists of the Romantic era, and many painters went in search of the crumbling picturesque. The Victorians imagined London in ruins, and the ruined city remains a compelling motif in our era of economic collapse. The wars of the 20th century produced such wreckage that it threatened to exceed the very category of ruin. Will the same be true of current environmental crises? Perhaps in the work of contemporary artist we can find new uses for ruins and new dreams among the rubble.”

The show starts with some fine images of romantic ruins, such as the overgrown remains of Tintern Abbey by JMW Turner, showing how extraodrinary were these ancient religious houses, but they also fell to human forces of the Reformation. I love Joseph Gandy’s bird’s eye view of his tutor, John Soane’s newly built Bank of England; he shows it with roofs and part walls missing, so already a ruin. Gandy was a truly extraordinary architect who spent much of his life drawing buildings that were too extraordinary, too visionary, to ever be built.

One of the most popular artists of ruins was the Italian, Giovanni Piranesi, who saw the ongoing mining of Rome for new buildings, and the burning of marble buildings and statues for lime, so he drew them before they were lost.

Modern artists are drawn to modern ruins – the mess made by the last war meant many people born in the ensuring years had ruined cities, often dotted with unexploded bombs, as their playgrounds. Many punks lived in abandoned buildings, so ruins were home to a new generation unable to find work who felt abandoned by mainstream society, so were squatting in the ruins of the great like Romans living in the ruins of their former empire.

I was fascinated by Tacita Dean who made Kodak at the Kodak factory with the last remaining monochrome film stock. She claims that early Danish cinema produced films with two endings for the export market: tragic for the Russians, and happy for the Americans.

The sheer amount of post war ruins from both World Wars left artists struggling to describe them. Ruins are attractive because they are different, and from a different time. If they are all around us, they cannot be the same. Writer Rose Macaulay doubted they would ever acquire the aesthetic distance of classical or medieaval remains.  John Piper and others were commissioned by Kenneth Clark of the War Artists Advisory Committed to paint damaged buildings as they happened, sometimes still on fire. The image of Coventry cathedral was iconic in rallying morale in the war. Part of the commission was to record, but also to get artists out of the capital where it was more dangerous. Bunkers were seen to have a savage beauty, and presaged the rise of brutalist architecture.

In 1967 Robert Smithson coined the term ‘ruins in reverse’ to describe this modern architecture, which appear to be ruined as they are being built, and time has not been kind to them, as many have been knocked down as they create such inhuman landscapes.

The piece I loved was a lot of fun. Gerald Byrne’s 1984 and Beyond used actors to stage a conversation printed in Playboy 1963 in which famous science fiction writers such as Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Henlein imagined the future. They discussed how a senior executive might be able to work in his car on the way to work, using fancy technology, how at the end of his day he might take a beautiful young woman half way round the world for cocktails, then go to the bottom of the ocean for some fine dining, all very exotic, with no care for any carbon footprints, but rather extraordinary as they were talking about such a small, and -of course all male – population. They were so excited about what the future might hold, which is probably why they were what they were. I have no idea why the actors all sounded Dutch, but it made them sound a bit silly, as indeed predictions for the future are now generally seen.

Paul Nash photographed oddities in the landscape, such as some steps in a field near Swansea that lead nowhere, or fallen trees that look like animals. In the 1970s The Artist Placement Group were working on turning industrial waste into public sculpture, so this interest in ruins seems to have been part of the birth of public art.

I loved the monochrome photos and film, Sealander by Jane Wilson and Louise Wilson, of the former Nazi fortifications on France’s Atlantic coast. One looks like a huge menacing spider or crab, made of concrete and quite amazing. J.G. Ballard compared these ruins to both cathedrals and to Piranesi.

As Brian Dillon wrote in his book, Ruin Lust: “The ruins of mid-century had summoned up the modernist architecture that the war had interrupted, but cast the writer (and the artists) back to the very origins of European ruin lust, so that even these most solid and indestructible of remains could no longer be said to be themselves alone, but rather routes out of our own moment – portals into past, present and future.”

I can’t recall who did the series of maps of council estates with scribbling all over them pointing out what was missing, the social spaces on the maps, but I loved what was written on one of them : “you are here, you are her, year, hour, err”

Rachel Whiteread made a series of pictures of London tower blocks being demolished, so speeding up the process of ruin and destruction. A similar demolition has just been announced as part of the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in a few months’ time. We are so much better at making ruins, bigger and faster than in the past. It’s a shame we’re no faster at repairing them.

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