Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ruin Lust at the Tate Britain


The first room in the Ruin Lust exhibition at the Tate Britain was sparsely populated with paintings. But each provided a key to themes which would be explored in subsequent rooms. They also gave some idea as to the range of subject matter, style and historical span which we could expect. John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum confronted us with the process of ruination in full epic widescreen. As in any disaster film, the pleasurable terrors of natural cataclysm visited upon the grand edifices of human civilisation in its fullest flowering are gleefully exploited. Figures fleeing in the foreground are overwhelmed by the rivers of bubbling magma and furious rain of burning rock plummeting from the sky. Even tinier figures in the middle distance have probably had it, no-name extras hired to scream and be anonymously buried or swallowed up by the roiling and rifting landscape.

This aestheticisation of disaster, offered up as thrilling spectacle, is later reflected upon in the dark photographic prints of Tacita Dean. The title of the series included here, The Russian Ending, directly invokes the cinematic quality of such images. It refers to the alternate cuts of films which distributors produced for Finnish and Russian markets. The latter emphasised more fatalistic, doom-laden conclusions, which they evidently thought would suit the Russian mindset. Dean’s beautifully reproduced images of shipwrecks, polluted cityscapes, battlefields strewn with the shells of bombed out vehicles and, indeed, erupting volcanoes are shaded in a sooty chiaroscuro, as if they were ingrained with smoke and ashes. Scrawled descriptions over various elements of the scene add to the impression that these are directed disasters, carefully staged and photographed for the pleasure of the viewer.

Rachel Whiteread also capture the moment of destruction, of ruination, in her series of photographs of high-rise estates being detonated. The titles include lengthy addresses, including postcodes. There are shots of the buildings in an intact state at the time at which they were condemned. They are like pre-ruins, the undocumented time inbetween a steady decline towards final dramatic collapse in dynamite clap and brick dust cloud.

Back in the introductory atrium, Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville (2006) and The Aftermath are large black photographs in which massive concrete bunkers, remnants of wars and occupations, fill the frame with brooding, ominous intensity. They are linear cliffs and outcrops, geometrically sheared formations which seem to form new landscape features. The incursions of nature into these man-made structures, in the guise of weathering, the drifting of sand, the mottling of moss and lichen, and the fringing of grass and weeds, begins to blur the boundaries between the natural and the artificial. They are like blocks of frozen time, deposits left by a particular historical moment. Despite their apparent indestructible solidity, they are themselves subject, as is everything, to the processes of time.

Paul Nash - Equivalents for Megaliths
Other artists also explore the congruence of the natural landscape with monumental human constructions. The works in the section titled On Land (presumably a reference to Brian Eno’s ambient evocation of fogbound landscapes) conjure up the spirit of place, the absorption of the marks of human history and presence into the contours of the land. Such marks respond to the landscape even as they shape it. Nature always triumphs in the end, steadily growing over and covering human endeavours to hold the cyclical processes of growth and decay at bay. Ruin and disaster create a borderland in which civilisation and the wild reconnect with each other amongst the rubble. The ancient landscapes of the south are invoked in Paul Nash’s Equivalents for Megaliths and Pillar and Moon. The surreal transformation of the harvest fields in the former suggests and affinity between the human imagination and certain landscapes, a profound sense of connection and attachment. Megalithic stone is here replaced with less substantial grids and rolls, suggestive of geometrical harvest stacks. They look like ideal forms, plans waiting to be given substance with the appropriate material. They are templates for the shapes and objects appropriate for a particular place and time, whether that be harvest stacks or sarsen stones. The harvested shapes will decay much more quickly, or be summarily dismantled. Time for these equivalents is considerably more constricted. The stone globe topping the wall pillar in the latter painting echoes the moon’s sphere in the sky above. The built landscape and the natural cycles are linked, the ruinous processes of time once more invoked. Time is inherent in both paintings: seasonal time, historical time and geological time. Megalithic sites have become so much a part of the British landscape, permanently inscribed onto the contours of OS maps, that they appear as an expression of it; Ruins which have come to seem like expressive natural outcroppings of the land.

Joe Tilson - Wessex Portfolio (Avebury
Joe Tilson also uses the ancient landscape of southern Britain as the basis of his Wessex Portfolio series. With their stacked arrays of photographs and graphic images, associatively linking into boldly iconographic representations of Stonehenge, Cerne Abbas, Silbury Hill, the White Horse of Uffington, Avebury and Glastonbury, these attempt to codify the power of these sites. Details such as spiral patterns (the inwardly coiling pathways of the brain), sketches of archaeological finds, starry backdrops and drawings of moths and bees give a particularity which contrasts with the specific view, focussing inward or beyond and bringing individual vision or universal perspective to bear. As a whole, they offer some kind of diagrammatic distillation of the affective spell of these places. They have gone beyond the notion of the ruin and have become part of a collective inner landscape, one where the distinction between the natural and the artificial has been almost wholly dispelled.

Paul Nash - The Fertile Image (with Monster Field on the cover)
Paul Nash further explores the surreal quality of the southern English landscape, and the presence of man within it, in a series of his photographs included here (some of which were also published in his 1951 book Fertile Image). Human artefacts and tools become strange and purposelessly abstract when stranded and abandoned within natural surrounds, or within wilds which have grown up around them. They become markers of boundary zones between the wild and the domestic, exterior and interior worlds. Iron Post, Bedhead and Stone Wall in particular points to the borders of unconscious dreamworlds with its particular assemblage. A garden roller is a potent symbol in its ruinous, rusted state. A tool intended to control and tame wild nature, it is now subject to its erosive forces. Nash’s fallen tree monsters indicate the ways in which ruinous natural forms arouse the active and alert imagination.

John Sell Cotman - Llanthony Abbey
Paintings of picturesque ruin often fixed upon the shattered shells of monasteries as their objects of fascination. Llanthony Abbey in Wales, set with a lush river valley, was a particular favourite, and views by Turner, John Sell Cottman and Joseph Clarendon Smith were included here. Leafy branch and vine cover patches of crumbling masonry, both furthering its eventual disintegration and helping in the short term to bind sections of wall together. The passage of time and history is made manifest and the irrevocable triumph of nature over civilisation is evoked. Abbeys were subject to deliberate ruination during the Reformation, and stand as symbols of the fragility of human ideas, beliefs and social and political structures. No matter how fixed and unassailable they might appear at any given moment, they will eventually fall.

Elswhere, the idea of the picturesque and the mystical sense of identity attached to the British landscape, along with the dreamy and uncritical veneration which it can arouse, are satirised. Keith Arnatt uses the acronym AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) with maximal irony in his series of photographs from 1982-4. He studiously avoids picturesque scenes, seeking out what lies behind or just beyond such carefully framed compositions. The workings behind the stage sets, so to speak. His countryside is grubbily mundane and poverty-worn. Human incursions into the natural world are not depicted as harmonious or romantic. They are despoliations, falling into a ruinous and rubbish strewn state which no one is likely to linger and admire.

John Latham’s Five Sisters Bing (1976) is a highly artificial landscape whose pyramidally peaked mountain range is formed of leather-bound books whose covers are redolent of classic literature, and whose bedrock is a bound edition of a year’s copies of The Times. An establishment landscape to be imposed on the spoil mountains left by departed industry. The very idea of a monument, for which this was a proposal, is mocked, the motives for its construction viewed with the greatest suspicion. David Shrigley, meanwhile, erects an instant prefab mini-leisure centre on the site of demolished Victorian housing, an amusing satire on reflexive 'redevelopment'. There is a serious point beneath the surface titters. Organised leisure will be the new currency in this street where people once organised their own communal activities.

Graham Sutherland - Devastation 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse
War is a time of rupture and upheaval, and creates its own instant overnight ruins. The shock of familiar buildings and cityscapes transformed with such sudden violence provokes an effect of surreal dislocation. British artists of a surrealist bent adapted their eye for strange and psychologically resonant transformations and realignments of the normal world and trained it on scenes in which that safe normality had been savagely blown apart. Surrealism during wartime becomes closer to realism, the surrealist’s attraction towards destruction guiltily fulfilled. Graham Sutherland, in his Devastation 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse, finds his characteristic fusion of natural and mechanical forms in the exposed rolls of paper. Stacked on top of one another and exposed to the elements, they look like the stripped trunks of felled trees mournfully laid out amongst broken machinery. In Muirhead Bone’s Torpedoed Oil Tanker (1940), the gargantuan vessel resembles a beached leviathan, the efflorescent rent in the side a killing wound. Metal has been bent and flayed, peeled back like hard, leathery skin. In John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex (1940), bomb damage to the tower has revealed a structural cross-section, as if we were looking at an architectural illustration. The damage here is very neat and precise. It could almost be a part of an act of reconstruction rather than destruction. John Piper’s St Mary le Port, Bristol records the jagged masonry bones of one of the city’s churches in much the same way as he painted the ruins of country mansions. Another Paul Nash photograph, taken at the Cowley Dump in Oxfordshire in 1940, gazes upon a cresting slope of wrecked airplane husks and dismembered parts. It form the basis for what is probably his best-known Second World War painting, which found him in full-blown surrealist mode: Totes Meer (Dead Sea) of 1941. The jumbled assemblage of aircraft parts displays an angular modernist fragmentation, here recorded as observed reality rather than formal abstraction, however. It looks like the result of a monstrous collision. The twisted metal precariously piled up in grinding disarray is darkly radiant with the violent spirit of death and destruction; that of the planes, their crews and of the destruction which they in turn had wrought. It is an instant, discomforting and unheroic monument.

John Constable - Sketch for Hadleigh Castle
The last of the introductory pictures in the exhibition’s atrium was John Constable’s Sketch for Hadleigh Castle. The ruin here is stridently Romantic, a lonely tower under rainswept skies by a storm-troubled sea. The unfinished nature of the picture gives it a rough form which proves entirely apposite for the mood of the scene. Though never intended to be viewed as a work in itself, it is nevertheless unconsciously modern in approach. It anticipates the way in which other works in the exhibition convey a ruinous aspect through rough, unrefined form; compositions left deliberately ragged around the edges, dissolving or thickening into semi-abstraction. JMW Turner also anticipates modern styles in his watercolour study Holy Island Cathedral. The ruined arch emerges from hazy and watery blue surrounds like some sunken Ys rising from the depths. We can imagine the picture accompanied by the tolling of Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie. Turner’s Temple of Poseidon is another Romantic clifftop ruin of the imagination. Its tempestuous roughness and noisy drama, with violent clouds gathering, stabbed through by a gash of lightning, has none of the classical equanimity its title might suggest. The gathering storm suggests that the process of ruination is ongoing, and the dogs howling out across the building waves mourn for their lost master.

JMW Turner - Holy Island
John Piper’s paintings of dilapidated country houses often have the look of collages, or broadly outlined stage sets. Flat masses of masonry facades are set off against highly contrasted backgrounds, the muted or darkly burnished colours suggesting burnt surfaces or age-accumulated patinas of lichen or moss. They are evocative backdrops in front of which stylised and fancifully costumed masques seem designed to unfold. The Forum (1961) sees him adopting the subject matter of the classical Roman ruin. He pushes the composition towards abstraction with splashes, dabs, dashed strokes and tangles of scraped swirl. Shapes suggestive of classical architectural form rise from or are imposed upon this chaos, remains of the old city amongst rubble and scrubby growth.

Leon Kossoff - Demolition of the Old House Dalston Road 1974
Leon Kossoff’s Demolition of the Old House Dalston Road 1974 is almost topographical in its roughness of form. Paint is built up in thick layers like dried ridges of mud. The picture could almost have been created from the mixed dust and debris of the site it depicts. Scores in the paint further the sense of geological formations, resembling weather cracking beginning to shear and fragment the surface. It’s a cousin to Frank Auerbach’s Maples Demolition Euston Road, painted in 1960, and which employs a similarly thick layering of paint to create a gnarled and glutinous dimensionality. Laura Oldfield Ford’s meticulously drafted depictions of post-war housing estates and their boundaries are smeared with blurred washes of pink in what at first appears a deliberate act of vandalism. These translucent surface blemishes resemble marks of attempted erasure, the traces left on walls after graffiti has been washed off. But scrawled screeds stubbornly remain written across areas of the paintings, commentaries, observations and clouds of drifting thought and emotion made manifest. The writing on the paintings is not defacement, rather it is an attempt at giving the local spirit expression.

In the case of Tacita Dean’s film Kodak, the medium is in itself the substance of ruin, or of the abandonment which presages ruin. It documents an ending, a moment of historical and cultural transition. These are the final days of the Kodak film manufacturing plant, and part of Dean’s film is printed on the last black and white 16mm stock to be produced there. It thus becomes a record of its own obsolescence and disappearance, a last spectral testament. The beauty of the images make this a melancholy farewell, an elegy to the passing of a particular form of vision from the world.

Piranesi - Pyramid of Gaius Cestius
The first pictures greeting the visitor as they entered the main body of the exhibition weren’t by British artists, and therefore seemed set a little apart. They were essentially more introductory works, prefatory images which primed us further for what was to come. They were two of Piranesi’s prints of Rome. They were placed by the entrance to the first room because of their formative influence on the development of an aesthetic appreciation of ruins. The 18th century Views of Rome depict the classical buildings in a detailed and clearly delineated fashion, outlines boldly etched and impressed on the paper with black ink. They bring a sense of solidity to the cracked, crumbling and vine-blotched masses of the Colosseum (1760-78) and the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius (1755). A degree of classical order and proportion is maintained, but tempered with the disorder of ruination and the reintroduction of a nature formerly held firmly at bay. There is a state of balance in place, but it is temporary. The Piranesi etchings set the templates for visions of cities and civilisations decaying and passing away, leaving evocatively empty shells to spark the curiosity of future travellers who look upon them.

Gustave Doré - The New Zealander
There was a subset of pictures here which imagined the abandoned ruins of futurity. These are the cityscapes of post-catastrophe science fiction which have fascinated writers, artists and, latterly, film-makers from the Romantic period onwards. In 1872, Gustave Doré provided dark and richly atmospheric engravings for London: A Pilgrimage, a travel book written by Blanchard Jerrold. The final plate is called The New Zealander. It depicts the future wanderer seated on a chunk of masonry from the collapsed London Bridge on the south side of the river, looking across at the ruins of the city. The dome of St Paul’s has collapsed inward; the cracked or fallen dome is a commonplace in depictions of future ruin. As an overarching symbol of ordered and classical civilisation and achievement, it is the perfect subject for significant destruction and continued disrepair. Jerrold locates the source of the imaginary scene in ‘Macaulay’s dream of the far future, with the tourist New Zealander upon the broken parapets, contemplating something matching “the glory that was Greece – the grandeur that was Rome”’. Thomas ‘Lord’ Macaulay’s quote about the New Zealander was instantly familiar to many at the time. At the conclusion to a book review in an 1840 edition of the Edinburgh Review, he had contemplated the continuation of Roman civilisation (the book in question was a History of the Popes) and the fall of the post-Reformation English protestant society. It was in such a context that he dreamed of a time when ‘some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's'. It was an image which caught the imagination of the reading public, long after the substance of the review was forgotten, and was widely, even profligately cited. The New Zealander became a byword for a future observer of fallen London. Doré’s print looked forward to look back to Piranesi’s etchings of Rome.

Joseph Michael Gandy - An Imagined View of the Bank of England in Ruins
Future ruination or abandonment became a part of a number of works of fiction in the 19th century as the industrialised city exploded outward and swallowed people up wholesale with a smoky belch. There was an element of wish-fulfilment in Richard Jeffries’ After London, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, William Morris’ News from Nowhere, H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine (with its emblematic scene set in a crumbling future museum), and M.P.Shiel’s 1901 novel The Purple Cloud. The destruction of the new polluted, overpopulated cities offered the possibility of new beginnings, the envisaging of a wholesale change of direction. When the architect John Soane designed his classically solid and rational Bank of England buildings, he commissioned the artist Joseph Gandy to depict them as future ruins, his domes and ceilings cracked and holed, letting in the elements to complete the levelling. It was an act of humility in a profession which can easily breed megalomaniac vision and vaulted hubris. But it also acknowledged the impermanence of the civilisation for which this symbolically massive and imposing structure served as a modern temple. This too shall pass, he seems to be saying, as the same time recognising the transience of his existence and the eventual disappearance of all the ideas and endeavours which made up and gave purpose to his lifetime. Perhaps it was this melancholy awareness that led him to collect, hoard and catalogue so many pieces of ruined masonry and statuary. He filled every nook and purpose-built shelf of his London house with them until he was effectively living in a crowded museum of his own curation. The house really is a museum now, and an utterly bewitching one at that, particularly as dusk draws in.

James Boswell - The Fall of London: The Horseguard
James Boswell’s The Fall of London (1933) is a series of smokily smudged black and white lithographs depicting the fight for the city during a fascist invasion. It gives alarming substance to the fears (or for some, the hopes) arising from the spread of fascism across the continent. They are a contemporary variant on the tales of German invasion which were widespread during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, the best known of which is George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking. A collection of these stories was gathered together by Michael Moorcock in the 1977 anthology England Invaded, which includes Blyde Mudersnook’s 1911 Strand tale When the New Zealander Comes – a fulfilment of Macaulay’s prophetic imagining. Boswell’s stark, graphically striking images are startling bleak. Human beings are reduced to ragdoll figures cast broken-limbed onto piles of rubble or hung crook-necked from lampposts, scuttling, crablike creatures in armoured carapaces, pointed guns like gesticulating claws, or fearful shadow runners, hunched, tensed and showing a flash of a face alert with blank paranoia. They are vaguely reminiscent of David Lloyd’s artwork for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (the monochrome version as originally published in Warrior comic), for which these lithographs could be viewed as a prelude in 8 snapshots.


Visions of the future themselves become outmoded and redundant, and looking back on them is like contemplating the ruins of futures past. This is what Gerard Byrne does in his video piece 1984 and Beyond, which restages a 1963 discussion between 12 science fiction writers, the results of which were published in Playboy. They attempted between them to envisage possible futures. The writers involved were among the cream of the 50s generation who prided themselves on their awareness of the social and political currents of the time. They were pulp philosophers possessed of varying degrees of insight. Some of their ideas are interesting, some are definitely of their time. The writers in question were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, A.E.Van Vogt, Algis Budrys, Theodore Sturgeon (one of the more liberal members of this group), Frederik Pohl, Rod Serling (the Twilight Zone writer and producer), James Blish (who had a rare intellectual rigour) and Poul Anderson. There is a faded nostalgia inherent in such a resurrection of old dreams. A yearning ache for a time when the future was an exciting prospect, full of rapidly expanding and seemingly limitless utopian potential; a future which could be born from the minds of a convocation of pipe smoking science fiction writers.

The works in the final room, Cities in Dust, drive the nails into the coffin of any such post-war utopian dreams of shining ziggurats and coiling skyways. John Riddy’s London (Weston Street) from 2008 focuses on an expanse of brickwork under a railway bridge. It seems to contain a chronicle of London’s steady decay from the mid-Victorian era onwards, written in the gradations of grime, weathering and mould, as accurately decipherable as the rings in a tree or the strata on an exposed rockface. The agit-prop art group Inventory find the decline of post-war social ideals symbolised by the worn, peeling surface of a South London housing estate map sign. They wrote their own response onto it, an angry palimpsest decrying the neglect which the ruinous map charts. Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London photos, taken between 1977-2008, view the city as a depopulated zone, abandoned by its populace, or perhaps evacuated by official mandate. It is devoid of apparent life. If there are people here, they have retreated behind their walls and are peering anxiously between the gaps in the curtains, like the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor. It’s a post-punk vision of future catastrophe now, with the city as imagined by Derek Jarman in Jubilee or by Michael Moorcock in various Jerry Cornelius stories.

Keith Coventry - Heygate Estate
Keith Coventry’s Heygate Estate (1995) redesigns the estate map as a piece of Russian constructivism, echoing the suprematist extremes of cold abstraction to which Kazimir Malevich pushed his paintings. It plots the birth and death of modernist ideals and approaches. There is an implicit criticism of the way in which human social and individual needs were abstracted and compacted to fit the mass housing projects of the post-war period. Just as the idealism of the Russian revolution descended into totalitarian control, so the ideals of modernist housing plans and their attendant social programs tended to devolve into failing systems of control. Coventry’s work serves as a fitting end point for the exhibition. The representations of ruins we have seen have largely been palpably physical. But ruins can equally be the rubble and wreckage of ideals, philosophies and once firmly held worldviews. The salutary lesson of the ruin is that nothing lasts, all is transient. It’s a knowledge which is melancholic, but which can also offer great comfort. Everything changes, everything is renewed. In this realisation lies the curious pleasure, lustful or not, of the ruin.

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