Jane & Louise Wilson, Urville (from the ‘Sealander’ series), 2006
Most people are fascinated by ruins. The appeal of the crumbling and the decaying is such that it has its own term in photography. It is called “ruin porn” and Detroit is one of its most celebrated subjects. Tate Britain currently has an exhibition about the mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art. It is called Ruin Lust. Not because Tate curators are prude and proper but because they are erudite, the title of the show, i read, comes from the 18th-century German architectural word Ruinenlust.
The exhibition begins with the eighteenth century’s fascination for ruins among artists, writers, architects and travelers. Think J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. I can’t summon much enthusiasm for paintings, etchings and sculptures of the past so i’m going to stop the romantic trip here, shamelessly skip the first parts of the exhibition and focus solely on contemporary works. Most of them photography.
Contemporary artists see ruins, not simply as scenes for aesthetic pleasure and remembrance of past glory, they also question their essence and even view them as as sites of rebirth and new opportunities.
Even if i deliberately only enjoyed a small part of Ruin Lust, i exited the show content and ready to enjoy any overlooked and crap-looking bit of urbanism London has to offer (before they become a real estate ‘prime location’.)
Here is a hasty tour of the show. It represent only a very subjective and photography-heavy perspective of it:
Jane and Louise Wilson, Azeville, 2006
Jane & Louise Wilson, Biville (from the ‘Sealander’ series), 2006
Jane and Louise Wilson have long explored architectural spaces that evoke power and control. The artists started photographing decaying Nazi bunkers on France’s Normandy Coast, after having read an article by J.G. Ballard on their place in modernist architecture. “We were intrigued by the World War II bunkers that were being drawn back into the water,” Jane says. “It was like something from an ancient civilization, but darker.”
Tacita Dean, Vesuvio, 2001
Tacita Dean, The Wreck of Worthing Pier, 2001
The Russian Ending, by Tacita Dean, is a series of photogravures with etching inspired by postcards documenting disastrous events. The title of the series refers to a cinematographic practice of the early 20th Century when the last sequences of European movies exported to America and Russia were filmed twice. American audiences would watch the ‘Happy End’ while a ‘Tragic End’ was made for Russians.
Broomberg and Chanarin, Red House #12, 2006
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have photographed marks and drawings made on the walls of what seems to have become a tourist hotspot in the town of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: the Red House. The building was originally the headquarters of Saddam’s Ba’athist party. It was also a place of incarceration, torture and often death for many Kurds. Broomberg and Chanarin
The artists photographed the marks left by Kurdish prisoners. We cannot tell what marks were made when and in what order. History presents itself as a palimpsest. If you wish you can sense in these photographs echoes of Brassai’s surrealist images of scratched grafitti from 1930s Paris or Aaron Siskind’s photos from the 1950s of daubs and tears made in hommage to abstract expressionist painting. But the context is more pressing and more fraught. The traces recorded by these photographs may relate to past events in the history of the Red House but nothing is settled in Iraq yet. While the photographs are fixed forever, these may not be the last marks made on these walls – David Campany.
Gerard Byrne, 1984 (screen shot from the video installation), 2005-2006
Gerard Byrne, 1984 and Beyond, 2005-2006
Gerard Byrne, 1984 and Beyond, 2005-2006
In ï»¿ï»¿1984 and Beyond, Byrne re-enacts a discussion, published in Playboy in 1963, in which science fiction writers – including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke – speculated about what the world might be like in 1984. Unsurprisingly, they were way off the mark.
Black-and-white photographs accompany the video work look like they came straight from the 1960s but if you look better you realize that they show objects, landscapes, cityscapes and scenes that might just as well belong to 1963, 1984 or now. They show the future that might have been, that probably never was but that still loiter in today’s world.
Keith Arnatt, A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), 1982-4
Keith Arnatt‘s deadpan series A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) subverts the idea of what is picturesque and what deserves to get our attention by pointing the camera to the most prosaic man-made interventions in the landscape.
John Latham, Five Sisters Bing
Five Sisters is a derelict land site in the Midlothian and West Lothian area which John Latham, during his artist’s placement with the Scottish Development Office, recommended they be preserved as monuments. He also proposed that the ‘bings’ (huge heaps of coal waste) should be preserved as monuments. Latham’s proposed to erect sculptures, in the form of books, on the summits of the ‘bings’.
Paul Graham, Paint on Road, Gobnascale Estate, Derry, 1985, printed 1993â€‘4, from the series Troubled Land
Paul Graham, Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, from the series Troubled Land
Instead of working like a photojournalist and look for dramatic scenes to document, Graham searched for subtle traces of political instability left in the landscape. Graham said: “It’s a combination of landscape and conflict photography, using small seductive landscapes to reveal the details.”
Jon Savage, Uninhabited London, 1977-2008
Savage photographed abandoned locations around North Kensington. In the 1970s, the area had very little in common with the chic neighbourhood it later became. He wrote:
These photos were taken on an old Pentax during January 1977: their purpose was to serve as an image bank for the second issue of the fanzine London’s Outrage. The location was the square of North Kensington that lies between Holland Park Road, the Shepherd’s Bush spur, Westbourne Park Road and the Harrow Road.
The bulk of the images come from the streets around Latimer Road and Lancaster Road: the district called Notting Dale. Here, as in other inner London areas like W9 (the Chippenham) and WC2 (Covent Garden), the tide of industry and humanity had temporarily receded. Slum housing stock had been demolished, but there was no reconstruction: squatting communities like Frestonia (based in Notting Dale’s Freston Road) occupied the remaining buildings. Not yet the clichÃ©s of punk iconography, large tower blocks loomed like primitive monsters above the rubble and the corrugated iron. I was guided to this area after seeing the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I was very taken with the Clash, partly because their North Kensington manor was so close to mine. Songs like “How Can I Understand The Flies” and “London’s Burning” reflected their environment with precision and passion. London was very poor in the late seventies. (via)
Rachel Whiteread, A: Clapton Park Estate, Mandeville Street, London E5; Ambergate Court; Norbury Court; October 1993 1996
Rachel Whiteread, B: Clapton Park Estate, Mandeville Street, London E5; Bakewell Court; Repton Court; March 1995
Rachel Whiteread‘s 1996 prints show tower blocks on three housing estates in east London at the moment of their demolition. The images were scanned from photographs and stages in each of these demolitions were documented in three photographs taken from the same view-point. A fourth photograph of each site from a different location records moments that preceded or followed the knocking down.
The Demolished photos record what Whiteread calls ‘something that is going to be completely forgotten … the detritus of our culture’, creating a memorial to the past in the hope of generating something better for the future.
Tacita Dean, Kodak, 2006
Tacita Dean’s film Kodak explores the ruin of images and obsolescence of technology. The artist traveled to Chalon-sur-SaÃ´ne (France) in 2006 to visit and film the final days of the production of the company’s 16-mm film stock.
On the day of filming, the factory also ran a test through the system with brown paper, providing a rare opportunity to see the facilities fully illuminated, without the darkness needed to prevent exposure.
Laura Oldfield Ford, Detail of Ferrier Estate, 2010
Please, don’t let this post convince you that i don’t like painting. Laura Oldfield Ford‘s look at brutalist estates and architecture’s failed attempts to build an egalitarian society.
John Riddy, London (Weston Street), 2009
David Shrigley, Leisure Centre, 1992
David Shrigley, Leisure Centre, 1992 (detail)