An exhibition currently at the Tate in London is exploring British images of ruin since the 18th century.
Ruin Lust, an exhibition at Tate Britain from 4 March 2014, offers a guide to the mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art from the seventeenth century to the present day. The exhibition is the widest-ranging on the subject to date and includes over 100 works by artists such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, John Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Rachel Whiteread and Tacita Dean.
Turner’s Tintern Abbey, 1794
This is meant to be a topical exhibition. Contemporary art abounds in work dealing with material decay, persistent memory, fragmentary remains, archival traces. Pictures of ruins, photographs mainly, are to be found in quantity on all the photo sharing websites. This archaeological genre has never been more popular (Paul Mullins offers an excellent and nuanced commentary on his blog – [Link])
But do such images sometimes turn the manifestation of urban, economic and political failure into images of beauty for easy contemplation, effacing social injustice and suffering? Are processes of decay neutralized by being made into the subject of aesthetic pleasure?
Here’s Brian Dillon, curator of the show at the Tate, in the Guardian in February 2012 -
An obsession with ruins can risk a fall into mere sentiment or nostalgia: ruin lust was already a cliché in the 18th century, and its periodic revivals may put one in mind of Gilbert and Sullivan: “There’s a fascination frantic / In a ruin that’s romantic.” The great interest in the remarkable images of decayed Detroit – in the photographs, for example, of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, on show at the Wilmotte Gallery in London from this week – is easily understandable but seems oddly detached from analyses of the political forces that brought the city of Detroit to its present sorry pass. It may be that as a cultural touchstone the idea of ruin needs to slump into the undergrowth again. But the history of ruin aesthetics tells us that it would likely resurface in time, charged again with artistic and political energy, and we’d find ourselves looking once more at blasted or burned cities with a visionary or melancholy eye, just as Rose Macaulay did in 1941, ambiguously lamenting a bombed-out house where “the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky”.
Recent similar commentary comes in the New York Times -[Link] and the Huffington Post – [Link]
The Wikipedia entry for “Ruins photography” expresses it as follows -
“Ruins photography aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.”
This is a critique of “aesthetics”, in the sense of treating and representing something, a ruin, aesthetically. Assumed is a distinction between superficial and popularly appealing beauty (of the photographs), and a deeper truth that is being occluded (typically conceived to involve the people who are the subject of ruin). Aesthetics here means to do with the ways things seem and are represented, and not least by artists.
The exhibition offers enough diversity to compromise this easy opposition of illusion and reality, the utility of scientific knowledge and the indulgences of pleasure. This is an old and recurring line of critique, and not just of photographs. Many since Plato have wished to banish the artist and what are conceived as their superficial aesthetic efforts, merely illustrative secondary representations, at best a popular entertainment, from the state of the philosopher King who alone can guarantee access to the truth of reality.
And these are images of places that are often culturally and historically charged. Turner’s ruins are paradigms of the picturesque. Other ruins are historical sites where things have happened, for better or worse. Ruins may be valued more as tourist attractions and as heritage icons than as the sources of history. Tintern Abbey becomes picturesque ruin, the realities of the dissolution of the church in the sixteenth century forgotten. So a related line of criticism pits heritage, the reception of the past rooted in contemporary interest, against history itself, the truth of what actually happened (Lowenthal 1996 and many after).
Let me share here an edited version of a comment I made recently to a paper in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (“Imaging modern decay: the aesthetics of ruin photography” by Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen), arguing that photography can witness the materiality of things in ruin, avoiding this ideology of the aesthetic (a powerful argument given the likes of Olsen 2010 and fieldwork in the abandoned Soviet mining town of Pyramiden – also the Ruin Memories Project). (References are at the end.)