I was walking out of a rather lackluster exhibition about “ruin lust” at the Tate Britain when I first set eyes on Phyllida Barlow’s Dock. Dock, unlike the cold paintings by Turner and inexpressive photos of concrete bunkers in the exhibition, was a delicious examination of what we find so appealing about buildings and their collapse.
Dock is a series of constructions, at the same time as they are a series of ruins. The works are massive, reaching towards high, classical ceilings of the Tate’s Duveen Galleries. But they are entirely self-standing, built of their own sturdy logic of wooden beams, cargo strapping, and brightly colored tape. Even the one piece that approximated a pile of building detritus—a colossal heap of insulation foam, fabric, and conglomerated wood scrap—had a certain gravity to it.
Barlow describes her own work as “anti-monumental”, against the permanency of marble sculptures and stone pillars. There is more than a bit of Shelley among the oranges, pinks, and yellows of the material that Barlow uses; as if upon looking at our own Ozymandias, we are meant to realize that despair comes in sudden onrushes of phenomenal sensation, as much it does via the slow progression of time. With the same intensity of spring colors that can launch a fashion product line, a fire can also burn.
But as much as Dock has the look and feel of the collected refuse of built civilization, it also comes as a celebration. There is monument in our ruins and refuse heaps. In any dumpster hauled away from a building site, there is archived a permanent record of what construction might be there, or now might be missing.
In between the shredded chunks of styrofoam board that Barlow has used to build her towers, there are lodged many grains of sand. The sand, along with the title of the work, inspire comparisons to the nearby Thames River, where building and improvement has been going on ceaselessly for decades as part of London’s architectural boom. The river’s banks, where I had occasion to walk, show signs of a similar detritus. Garbage, refuse, and un-used building materials poke up out of the Thames mud. For thousands of years the river has been both a transportation highway and dump for the center point of British civilization. The quays along the river are mostly gone now, the former crossroads of the largest colonial economy displaced elsewhere or made invisible within the banking towers of Canary Wharf. And yet the signs remain, littering the estuary, becoming part of the anthropocene strata. Rubble and wreckage of buildings is folded within the earth, to become part of geologic history. The Thames is lined with wood-stones and brick-stones: chunks of brick that have been eroded round as river pebbles. All that we throw away in the course of building becomes part of our species’ permanent record upon this earth, and Barlow’s work pays homage to our unique position as simultaneous builders and destroyers of the planet.
As I walked underneath these indoor towers, I felt the precariousness of our constructed existence. Like the massive tube hanging from one structure, we are tied up by bright strappings that can hold an absurd amount of weight. And yet, even the most secure anchors are transitory. There is nothing that we build that cannot come down, and in thousands of years, even marble statues will look like no more than a heap of river stones, or a pile of scrap wood. It isn’t so much the presence or absence of bright colors, or the height of the tower one builds. The genius is in the detail, in the elaborate care Barlow has taken with these materials, to combine them and layer them just so, to affect this particular layer of strata in a deliberate way. Here, against these sculptures, humanity takes a moment to tie up its ship and offload its cargo, before continuing onward into whatever may come.