Reviews: The art of ruins
Two new exhibitions in London address the idea and experience of ruins – or proto-ruins – in very different ways, writes Jay Merrick
Ruins exist, but are we complicit in the ruination of their existential heft? When we encounter ruins, do they always trigger a cascade of sentiment, emotion, and speculation about the temporal macaroni of past, present, and future? One would like to think that the human passions and beliefs that informed the Duomo in Florence, the insulae at Ostia Antica, or Cardross Seminary do not have a sell-by date. But what if our 21st century perceptions of these passions and beliefs do?
Two shows, Ruin Lust at Tate Britain, and Rut Blees Luxemburg and Keef Winter’s London Dust (viewable by prior appointment at an address in Hackney) question the idea and experience of ruins or proto-ruins in very different ways. Between them, we are offered glimpses of ruins as facts, historical sentiments, Postmodern smash-and-grabs, and virtual or incidental situations.
One of the first experiential ruin routines must have been the aestheticised ur-PoMo memorial vistas of the Picturesque movement in the 18th century, which produced the German word Ruinenlust. A century after the onset of the Picturesque, Lord Elgin purloined more than half of the Parthenon’s decorative marbles, conferring respectability on imperial droit du seigneur collections of classical statuary and fragments.
In his latest book, Brand New, the advertising world’s equivalent of Le Corbusier, Wally Olins (who looks at the world through similarly sphincter-framed spectacles) proclaims that, from the 19th century, ‘the nation was, and is, proclaimed by and symbolised in its own highly coloured mythology … The nation state bathed itself in its own self-generating nostalgia and a vast pile of emotional baggage, which provided an overwhelmingly powerful sense of belonging for its citizens.’
But does nostalgia and emotional baggage, ruins included, still define nations meaningfully? Do they provide an overwhelmingly powerful sense of visiting, rather than identity and belonging? The ontology of the resonances of decrepit, historically important buildings and settings are increasingly influenced by their presentation as a kind of entertainment. They are something to do; something, ironically, that passes the time, and preferably for as many tourists as possible. Ruins are part of Britain’s national brand, which is a conflation of the City (financial potency), tech and design specialisms (creative potency), and legendary architectural fabric (historical potency).
When we encounter a ruin – Stokesay Castle, for example, which so fascinated Lutyens – do we absorb its denuded 13th century form as if it were a convenient petrification of the past in Shropshire, with café facilities? Or do Stokesay’s asymmetries of plan and elevation resonate in a deeper, more atmospherically complicated way? Both reactions apply, no doubt.
Ruins are still ruining, so to speak. They are physiques and phenomena in process, projecting their auras backwards and forwards through time. Their value to our imaginations and senses of being is about more than the past; we need the shadow of time’s incremental wrecking-ball to get a handle on the present, and its future potentials. But the only ruins we experience regularly are televised – typically, the results of terrorism or natural disaster.
Perhaps our ability to engage meaningfully with the decay of buildings and places is being skewed by the new lust for architectural surfaces, rather than concentrations of metaphorical or contextual representation. One effect of this, as Joseph Rykwert notes in The Seduction of Place, is that ‘questions of style and ornament, which may seem harmless, become dangerously misleading when they stop at the surface and consequently mask problems of social structure and of context.’
The images and artworks in the Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain are not entirely misleading about what the show’s co-curator, Brian Dillon, references as ‘drosscape’. But the majority of the 101 exhibits evoke ruins in a way that heightens their stylistic or ornamental expression.
There’s nothing ruinous about Graham Sutherland’s 1941 painting, Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse because it’s simply too beautifully artful; the alleged ruination in Leon Kossoff’s Demolition of the Old House, Dalston Junction Summer 1974, is essentially about its own vigorous wreckage of thickly applied squibs and swirls of paint; Laura Oldfield Ford’s acrylic and ballpoint 2010 image, Ferrier Estate, lacks any temporal or factual traction; and of the 11 works by Tacita Dean, only Beautiful Sheffield radiates a profound sense of actual and imagined ruin across time.
Apart from the ravishingly mysterious concrete gun-bunker hulks photographed by Jane and Louise Wilson, and Gustave Doré’s recondite The New Zealander in London, from 1872, in which a Victorian Kiwi gazes at the roofless City and the broken dome of St Paul’s, the Tate show confronts us with objects and depictions of ruins that project the past and the future without any rivetingly atmospheric sense of ruinous otherness.
The show works much more effectively as a studiously informative history, and critique, of how ruin is represented and its Postmodern artefacts are particularly prescient in the way they use ruins as found material that can be reinvented. Patrick Caulfield’s Ruins does so with superficial, Crayola-bright irony, while the classical fragments in his Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi veer into sexy PoMo.
The photographic images produced by Rut Blees Luxemburg in the London Dust exhibition use another kind of found object: the incidental surfaces, objects and marketing imagery found around the building site of the stalled Pinnacle tower in London’s Bishopsgate. Through her lens, these quotidian things convey a sense of delicate wreckage – or what Blees Luxemburg describes as the ‘joyously filthy reality’ that coats architectural visions of the future.
In the past, her images have made urban incidentals tenderly virtuous. The tenderness of her vistas in London Dust are more despairing in the way they touch the edges of architectural hubris and ruin. London Dust’s other protagonist, Keef Winter, offers us a starker kind of detritus – abstract sculptures which address ideas about urban dissonance – and they have the aura of disassembled or denuded remains.
In the 15th century, Pope Pius II valued ‘exemplary frailty’. Four centuries later, when John Martin’s apocalyptic 1822 masterpiece The Fall of Babylon went on public display, throngs of people bought £1,000-worth of tickets – that’s £42,000 in today’s money – in the first four days. In 2014, the grinning laser-cut skulls sold in the shadow of the Colosseum, and the polemically buckled structure of Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building, are nudging us towards other kinds of Ruinenlust.
Jay Merrick is architecture correspondent of the Independent
Ruin Lust, curated by Emma Chambers and Brian Dillon, at Tate Britain until 18 May.
London Dust, photographs by Rut Blees Luxemburg and sculptures by Keef Winter, at Chandelier, Studio 16, Victor House, 282a Richmond Road, London E8, until 26 April; viewing by appointment via: email@example.com