The Future-Past: Competing Temporalities of the Ruin.

Ruin Lust, Tate Britain 4 March – 18 May 2014.


  A fascination with ruins has not always been with us. It presumes, for one, a linear notion of time, in other words the idea that the past is irrevocably lost. It is also born of a forensic – or archaeological – interest in history, one that sees in broken remains the traces of past acts and endeavours.  The desire to contemplate ruins also suggests wistfulness, the inevitable melancholy borne by something broken that was once complete, together with a warning against hubristic assumptions of permanence of any kind.

Ruin Lust, at the Tate Britain, is a meandering visual essay curated mostly out of works in the Tate collection by writer and critic and UK editor of Cabinet magazine, Brian Dillon (together with Emma Chambers and Amy Concannon).  The title is a loose translation of the German term Ruinelust, resurrected by novelist Rose Macaulay in 1953. But the English term loses in preciseness what it gains in vigour and impetus: the German word Lust would more correctly be translated as pleasure, though ‘the pleasure of ruins’ doesn’t quite cut the mustard as a crowd-puller. It does, however, serve as the moniker for two of its rooms. Svetlana Boym, who has made the conflicting temporalities of nostalgia in architecture and urbanisation her object of study, suggests ruinophilia as the appropriate term, but ruin lust offers the perfect sound-bite for a show that fascinatingly invites us to contemplate not so much ruins, as the idea of the ruin and our passionate attachment to this idea, explored by artists from the eighteenth century to our own times. This exhibition brilliantly plots a tour through our culture’s obsession with decay, from the dreamy contemplation of the crumbling remains of classical antiquity, via fantasised evocations of future ruins, through urban hinterlands to military apocalypse.

John Constable, oil sketch, 'Ruins of Hadleigh Castle,' 1828.
John Constable, oil sketch, ‘Ruins of Hadleigh Castle,’ 1828.

The first room sets the tone of the exhibition. Here, John Martin’s theatrical, psychedelically lit The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), a painting that itself was subjected to ruin and revival, is pitted against John Constable’s heavily scumbled outdoor oil sketch of the ruins of Hadleigh Castle (1828). The two paintings stand for distinct styles of British Romanticism – the sublime and the picturesque – and both are set against Jane and Louise Wilson’s photograph Azeville (2005), showing the abandoned remains of the Allied airfield built in that Norman region towards the end of World War II. The tour proper is then launched with works that are hung, especially in the first few rooms, in dialogue with one another. Piranesi, Turner, John Sell Cotman, but also John Piper, Graham Sutherland, John Stedzaker, Edward Allington and Laura Oldfield Ford. Where the works are more traditionally and predictably linked – the two astonishing architectural conjectures of Rome by Piranesi, or the views of Tintern Abbey by Turner and Peter van Lerberghe respectively, or of Netley Abbey by Francis Towne and Samuel Prout respectively – the show is certainly more beautiful and educative than surprising. But where the gathering of artists is truly heterogeneous and quirky (clearly, limitations were set by working within the given parameters of a single collection), hazarding a loss of visual coherence, the curatorial line of thought becomes at once riskier, and more adventurous. Rooms 2 and 3 – under the rubric of The Pleasure of Ruins – where old works are most blatantly juxtaposed with more recent ones in suggesting that the pleasure we take from ruins spans different areas of interest, is, while fascinating, the least cohesive section of the exhibition, and one where the line of thought seems least clear, though in an exhibition dedicated to ruins, perhaps lack of cohesiveness has to be seen as a positive value, if not a downright curatorial strategy.

Jane and Louise Wilson, 'Azeville', 2006. © Jane and Louise Wilson.
Jane and Louise Wilson, ‘Azeville’, 2006. © Jane and Louise Wilson.

The later rooms lead us through different notions of the ruin, now more consistently figured, not as vestiges of the corrosive effects of time, but as the remainders and reminders of human- or regime-made disaster. Particularly moving are the ruins of war, or what cultural theorist Paul Virilio has dubbed ‘bunker archaeology’, which is the title given to Room 5. Virilio coined the term in its narrowest sense for the haunting (and haunted) remains of German bunkers on the French coast, but used it more generally to refer to the abandoned remains of military prowess and as a point of departure for a consideration of war in general. (In a recent television programme on BBC4, Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, Jonathan Meades explored the fascination exerted by such structures). The paintings of John Piper and Graham Sutherland (I profess no lost love for either artist) look tame and illustrative, but Paul Nash’s paintings and, especially, his photographs suggest an analogy between the devastated landscapes of war and the bare bones of human and animal remains. Contemporary works are almost ubiquitously photographic, and include prison walls discovered in Iraq and the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party, photographed by the duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, whose work has shone a light on anonymous photographs taken in twenty first century conflict zones; and Jane and Louise Wilson’s dramatic, large, black and white photographs of the Nazis’ defensive Atlantic Wall (2006), invoking further along the exhibition’s trajectory a memory of the first room.

A particularly affecting instance of the representation of military damage is Tacita Dean’s image of explosions across a battlefield in Crimea, one of a series of twenty photogravures based on postcards of disaster and destruction that the artist bought at various European flea-markets. As it happens, this work now sounds a particularly resonant cautionary note about historical repetition, more tragic than farcical to be sure. The body of work to which it belongs, collectively titled The Russian Ending, drolly refers to the different endings for films produced by Danish cinema to cater to the divergent tastes of the American and Russian markets, the former with its hunger for happy resolutions, the latter with its lust for the tragic denouement. Here, as elsewhere, Dean’s work cannily intertwines a love of obsolete technologies with a reflection on how ruins are emplaced and mediated by different mediums and representations. Tacita Dean’s thoughtful and consistent exploration of the ruin in particular, and of obsolescence in general, is acknowledged by her being the only artist granted her own section in the exhibition (Room 4).

The Crimea 2001 by Tacita Dean born 1965
Tacita Dean, ‘Crimea,’ from ‘The Russian Ending.’ © Tacita Dean, courtesy The Frith Street Gallery, London, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

The itinerary concludes with two rooms, 7 and 8 (titled On Land and Cities in Dust), dedicated to the interstices and edgelands (the term was coined by poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley) of our modern cities. These include Jon Savage’s bleak photographs of underpasses in the 1970s, John Latham’s project for post-industrial monuments made of shale heaps, and Rachel Whiteread’s photographs of the demolition of tower blocks in Hackney, Demolished – B: Clapton Park Estate (1996). Keith Coventry’s Heygate Estate (1995), where a few thick black lines on an impasto white ground resemble the pared down aesthetic of early twentieth-century constructivist works, is in fact the graphic schema of the layout of the housing estate named by the title. Together, Whiteread and Coventry’s works read as testimonies to the limits – or failure – of modernism.  Indeed, these last rooms of the exhibition chart the desolate ‘drosscape’ of contemporary urban environments as the ruins of the utopia of modernist urbanisation.

Keith Arnatt, A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) 1982-4. © Estate of Keith Arnatt.
Keith Arnatt, A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) 1982-4. © Estate of Keith Arnatt.

Drolly, in his black and white photographic series A.O.N.B (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), Keith Arnatt – an underrated photographer and an artist whose work I happen to love – photographs the sites visited by the eighteenth century artist and writer William Gilpin, who, with Turner, set the bar for ruinophilia as a constituent part of scenic pleasure. With these deadpan images of suburban hinterlands, Arnatt invokes the destruction of a landscape once picturesquely inhabited by ruins to which we might have become nostalgically attached, a different kind of desolation.

The nostalgia of the fragment for the lost whole is paradoxically the pre-condition of ‘ruin lust’, and the desired circumstance of its emergence. The exhibition makes it clear that while poets and painters of the Romantic period loved nothing more than a ruin serving as an object of meditation on mortality, on the evanescence of beauty and human endeavour, for writers and artists of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, the ruin simultaneously preserves an image of history, and stands as a warning metaphor for the casualties of competing ideologies. Perhaps most famously, for Walter Benjamin, whose shadow, together with W.G. Sebald’s, hovers over the conceptual framework of this exhibition, the ruin was a multivalent trope, at once redemptive and cautionary. His notion that ‘the development of the forces of production shattered the wish symbols of the previous century, even before the monuments representing them had collapsed’[1] suggests that our built environment is the space on which capitalism is inscribed. Sooner or later, such ‘monuments’ stand as realised fragments of the utopian dreams of capitalism. But Benjamin’s assertion also suggests that the present moment contains the pre-history of the future ruin, one where current objects of desire are already imaginatively figured from the perspective of their future devastation.

Room 6 of the exhibition, Ruins in Reverse, materialises this layered and paradoxical temporisation. The term ruins in reverse was coined by American land artist Robert Smithson to describe ‘the manner in which modern architecture and infrastructure seemed not to fall into disuse,’ the wall text tells us, but, in Smithson’s words, to ‘rise into ruin.’ Here, the ruin is not so much the eventual outcome, but rather, the telos, a desired and inevitable point of arrival. This notion was echoed by novelist J.G. Ballard’s view that post-war concrete architecture held the premonition of its own demise. Such future-pastness (or the nostalgia for a redeemable pastness) could readily be bolstered by referring to the writings of both Walter Benjamin and W.G. Sebald. The whole of Benjamin’s essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ could be invoked, but a sentence near the beginning of Sebald’s magisterial Austerlitz will serve as a particularly evocative example: ‘At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.’[2] Sebald’s musings on monumentalism, dotted throughout this book, seem elliptically to allude to the official architect of the Nazi state, Albert Speer, whose vast projects were modeled on an imperial past figured as glorious, but with an eye to their own potential as a future ruin. The name coined for this concept, which Speer claims to have invented, but which originates in Romanticism, was Ruinenwert (ruin value).

Joseph Gandy, cutaway view of John Soane's Bank of England from the perspective of its future ruin, 1830. Courtesy of John Soane Museum, London.
Joseph Gandy, cutaway view of John Soane’s Bank of England from the perspective of its future ruin, 1830. Courtesy of John Soane Museum, London.

The built in obsolescence of every form of futurism – every prospect of the future contains, embedded within it, the notion of a ruin ­– is explicit in Room 6, but it is implicit in the whole exhibition. One of the most remarkable early works on the show is Joseph Gandy’s cutaway view of John Soane’s design for the Bank of England from the future perspective of its own devastation  (1830, borrowed from the John Soane Museum), bizarrely and perspicaciously commissioned by the architect himself. The work might well have been used to illustrate Benjamin’s analysis of the inherent obsolescence of desirable commodities within capitalism; or indeed might stand as an illustration of the contemporary fetishisation of disposable commodities requiring constant ‘upgrading’ against a background of distrust in, but dependence on, the protocols stipulated by banking institutions.

Gerard Byrne, Still from '1984 and Beyond,' three-channel video installation of non-linear duration. © Gerard Byrne and Lisson Gallery, London
Gerard Byrne, Still from ‘1984 and Beyond,’ three-channel video installation of non-linear duration. © Gerard Byrne and Lisson Gallery, London

Gerard Byrne’s three-screen video installation 1984 and Beyond restages, in overlapping loops, a conversation published in Playboy magazine in 1963, in which twelve well-known sci-fi authors imagine the global politics of the now-past future. The work explores the limitations of cultural imagination with regard to the future, with reference to signifiers of the recent past (architecture, sculpture, clothing, hairstyles, music). The group included Isaac Assimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlen, and all twelve protagonists of the conversation are rather woodenly played by actors in iconic modernist architectural settings. Naturally, the fact that the predictions themselves are dated, ‘almost comically optimistic regarding life as it might be lived two decades thence,’[3] throws into relief the futility and inevitable anachronism of all futurologies, while the film’s structure, based on an edited transcript, reminds us constantly that we are viewing an artifice.

Another striking work to capture contradictory temporalities is, again, by Tacita Dean. In her grainy, looped film Kodak, using 16mm film (Dean has remained a firm exponent of analogue mediums), she has recorded the production of the same film in Kodak’s factory at Charlon-sur-Saône. The film was unwittingly made at precisely the time when, in the face of the pervasiveness of digitisation, the company had decided to stop all such film production.

Svetlana Boym remarks on the importance of early twentieth century sociologist Georg Simmel in defining our fascination with ruins. She highlights Simmel’s emphasis on the collaborative workings of nature and culture in the fabrication of the ruin (‘Nature has transformed the work of art into material for her own expression as she had previously served as material for art’; Simmel, ‘The Ruin’). Simmel’s theory of ruins – he positioned them in direct opposition to the notion of the epiphanic moment pregnant with potentiality – reveals in ‘retrospect’ what such moments held in ‘prospect.’ This Boym terms ‘imaginative perspectivism’[4]: the capacity to hold hope and a tragic sense of inevitability in balance. It is, above all, this imaginative perspectivism – a gaze upon the ruin that does not simplistically pit past against future, and that acknowledges the intertwining of historical and natural temporalities – that we take away from this compelling exhibition.

Ruth Rosengarten © April 2014.

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century’ in The Arcades Project, (The Belknap Press University of Harvard Press, 2002), p.13
[2] W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell, New York: Modern Library, p. 19.
[3] Brian Dillon, ‘The Art of Gerard Byrne,’ in The Guardian, Saturday 19 June, 2010.
[4] Svetlana Boym, ‘Tatlin, or, Ruinophilia,’ Cabinet, Issue 28, Bones, Winter 2007-8,