How Tate Britain’s “Ruin Lust” explores the art of change

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Jon Savage, London

Jon Savage, Uninhabited London 1997-2008. Tate © Jon Savage

The fascination with Ruins imagery keeps on growing. Last week, yet another website documenting abandoned shopping malls went viral. A major exhibition at the Tate Britain in London dives deep into the fascinating history of the imagery of Ruins.

Who?

Artists and photographers from JMW Turner’s Tintern Abbey to music journalist Jon Savage’s photos of decaying 1970s London.

What?

The Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain, London. The title comes from the German Ruinelust,and the exhibition is curated by Brian Dillon, writer, RCA lecturer and editor of the beguiling art and culture magazine Cabinet.

Like Cabinet magazine, the Ruin Lust show presents the visitor with a generous and expansive story through the imagery, history and notion of Ruins.

It’s a timely show by the Tate, as our fascination with Ruins culture shows no signs of abating. The obsession with the semi-apocalypse of urban Detroit continues despite benchmark pieces  such as John Patrick Leary’s ‘Detroitism’ for Guernica magazine back in 2011. Just last week Buzzfeed reported on a compelling Facebook photo-project documenting America’s abandoned shopping malls.

Although timely is an odd word to use in relation to Ruins. They’re untimely in the way they interrupt our everyday linear sense of past, present and future – their haunting memory can produce a powerful sense of nostalgia and even melancholy. These images alter our mood. Images of ruins are little visual pockets of time, fragments that picture the passage of time, dead time, ghost-time. The absence of people in these spaces suggest apocalypse – ruins are The Walking Dead of the art world, they position the viewer as ‘survivors’. Ruins are the visual sign of accelerated change.

Joseph Mallord William Turner. Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window 1794. Tate

The exhibition breaks up Ruins culture into themed bits, so an 18th century JMW Turner sits in the same room as a 20th Century Patrick Caulfield, the painterly sits beside the graphic, the picturesque beside the designed.

It’s not just a matter of style, what makes this show so stimulating is that it constantly draws your attention to how we have evolved our ways of seeing things and landscapes – from the figurative painting of Turner to the Pop icons of Caulfield.

Patrick Caulfield, Ruins, 1964. Photograph: Tate © DACS 2013

Patrick Caulfield, Ruins 1964. Tate © DACS 2013

Decisive Moment

Tacita Dean’s film Kodak.  She had been trying to get hold of film for her 16mm camera and discovered Kodak wasn’t producing anymore. Like every smart designer, the problem became the motor of the big idea, and Dean decided to use the last remaining film to document the Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saône, using a dead medium (16mm film) to shoot the end of the manufacture of that medium. An elegant solution. And ironic – the decisive moment eats itself.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006

Tacita Dean, Kodak 2006. Tate © Tacita Dean

It’s not just sharp thinking it’s also an extravagantly beautiful exploration of colour and form that photographers would seriously admire. The supporting text for Kodak on the Tate website quotes from Dean’s catalogue for her exhibition Analogue, on her anxiety about the effects of solely digital image-making.

Digital “just does not have the means to create poetry; it neither breathes nor wobbles, but tidies up our society, correcting it and then leaves no trace … It is too far from drawing, where photography and film have their roots: the imprint of light on emulsion, the alchemy of circumstance, marks upon their support … what we are losing is a vast immensity of treasure and yet we are choosing not to replace it properly.”

Media thinker Marshall McLuhan argued that any new media turns the old media it is replacing into an art form – think of how magazines in the age of digital have become exquisitely beautiful print objects. Likewise, in Tacita Dean’s work, the old analogue media of film becomes Art.

Or another example from the show where artist John Latham wanted to turn the post-industrial shale heaps in Scotland in the 1970s into sculpture. This arrangement of books, a sculpture called Five Sisters Bing, echoes his vision that the heaps may become art.

John Latham, Five Sisters Bing, 1976

John Latham, Five Sisters Bing 1976. Tate © The Estate of John Latham

Trend

Mmm…Ruins? Seriously though, Ruins imagery has become such a 21st Century phenomenon, it is our era’s version of Goth culture. While Goth culture (and its related industrial music) emerged from the wreckage and ruins of the shift away from manufacturing in the UK and US of the 1980s, our obsession with visual ruins is partly due to the accelerated change of the moment.

In the age of the internet, we are all archaeologists. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (hey, it’s about art) French Archaeologist Rene Belloq calls the Ark “a transmitter for talking to God”. Indeed, if factories are industrial technologies, churches are a religious technology and when the Pope has his own Twitter account its not hard to see how religious and industrial ruins have a nostalgic appeal in an era where tech and gadgets disappear so quickly.

Jane and Louise Wilson, Azeville, 2006.

Jane and Louise Wilson, Azeville 2006. Tate © Jane and Louise Wilson

Art Meets Commerce

Ruins in advertising? Obviously the ‘Nostalgia’ trend. But thinking about the image of the ruin, the ruin is about the ‘fragment’, the snippet, the bite (a ruin is a building bitten by time) that stands for a bigger story, in an age when we get bits of stories across different media technologies, understanding the fragment and how it works is key to communication.

But to be very literal, the image of the ruin is about conservation, it’s about the broken and ‘make-and-mend’. The ruin is very much about material physical things in the age of smooth digital culture. The image of the material in the age of digital always resonates.

There’s a striking example in the show, John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum from 1822, a picture about ruins was badly damaged and ruined itself when the basement of the Tate was flooded in 1928. It was restored in 2011, and if you look closely you can see the jagged edge of the work in the top right hand quarter of the painting, as if the heat from the volcano has ripped the painting itself. It’s strangely poignant.

John Martin, The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822

John Martin, The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011. Tate

One Question for the Artist?

Eduardo Paolozzi (7 March 1924 – 22 April 2005), how did you smash the plaster-cast to get such a balanced collage of pieces?

Eduardo Paolozzi, Michelangelo's 'David’ 1987

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Michelangelo’s ‘David’ 1987. Tate © DACS 2013

Ruin Lust runs at Tate Britain, London until the May 18. For more info click here. The Ruins reader edited by Brian Dillon is published by The Whitechapel Gallery

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