Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Ruin Lust, curated by Brian Dillon, Emma Chambers and Amy Concannon, is a wide ranging look at the way that ruins have been used in art from the seventeenth century through to the present day. Across a number of mediums, including sculpture, painting, photography and film, the works on display demonstrate the different readings, interpretations and influences that have come about from artists’ seemingly endless fascination with ruins, from the destruction of Pompeii to the gentrification of London’s East End.
What is interesting to see as one wanders around the space is the transformation which occurs when these spaces and objects are encountered. The approaches between the artists range from the speculative to the documentarian and from the reverent and mournful to the satirically comic. In each case, the ruins become more than simply buildings or spaces, instead transforming into placeholders and signifiers that take on an entirely different, multi-dimensional importance.
The first room addresses the scope of this transformation by juxtaposing John Martin’s restored The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculanium (1822) and John Constable’s Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ (c. 1828-9) with Jane and Louis Wilson’s large photographic print Azeville (2006). Within these three images are some of the major touchstones of the show; the ruin as memorial, as inspiration, as ideal, as foreshadowing, as de/recontextualised mass. In the gallery rooms which follow, these approaches are teased out through works which strike not only at notions of idealised beauty from a bygone era, but at suggestions of possible, sometimes dystopian futures.
It’s this positing of potential which makes for one of the most rewarding thematic threads through the exhibition. Beginning with Joseph Gandy’s Aerial cutaway view of the Bank of England from the south-east (1830) and Gustav Dore’s The New Zealander in London; A pilgrimage (1872), comes a refiguring of the ruin as an expression of anxiety or melancholy about the future. They raise the idea of the ruin as an inevitable destiny, or as a more damning or apocalyptic judgement on the present and its likely end. These works from the 19th Century sit alongside later works from the 20th and 21st Centuries, which show the results of German Bombing during the Second World War or the destruction of urban London either from neglect or as part of so-called renewal and development projects. This contrast between the hypothetical and the starkly realist is a powerful reminder of the way in which history seems to repeat and the place of ruins as signposts in that process. These considerations give the ruins a sort of sculptural presence, man-made shapes and places that have undergone a transformation from a largely applied architectural purpose into a more metaphorical, symbolic role, like granite milestones on a modern superhighway.
This is also raised in a much lighter way in the single room installation 1984 and Beyond (2005-7) by Gerald Byrne. On three screens in the centre of the room is a restaging of a conversation amongst a group of science fiction writers which was first published in Playboy in 1963. The writers hold forth on their predictions for the future, which at times seem incredibly dated and comical. The effect is reinforced by the costuming of the men in horn rimmed spectacles, trench coats and of course, pipes. Around the walls of the room is a series of photographs showing so-called ‘relics’ of the 1960s which still survive in the present, from a pair of shoes to a classic car. The beautifully shot black and white images blur the line between documenting the past and situating it in the present, and speak to a wider ambiguity which so many of the other works in the exhibition touch on in relation to their ruinous inspiration, perhaps best summarised by Robert Smithson’s notion of ‘ruins in reverse’.
Tacita Dean’s two standout works, a collection of 8 photographs from the series The Russian Ending (2001) and the haunting Kodak (2006) also elevate the role of the ruin beyond the merely physical to a loaded symbol of transition and decay. In the film work Kodak (2006), set in the Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saone, Dean used the some of the last monochrome standard 16mm film stock produced by the company to shoot the black and white sections, a eulogy to a nearly obsolete medium and a suggestion of the dynamic power of spaces and objects in their final moments as they slip into the past. Her photographic series, so-called in reference to early Danish cinema’s convention of filming two endings to many of their films, a ‘happy ending’ for American film-goers and a ‘tragic ending’ for Russian audiences, also hints as the ruin as a changeable, mouldable construct, which can be used to render a wide spectrum of narratives, speaking to their dynamic and sculptural character.
Ruin Lust is on show at the Tate Britain in London until May 18.
By Will Gresson