Ruin Lust

At Tate Britain, Leo Mellor finds potency, fatalism and beauty in depictions of transience, both gradual and cataclysmic

March 13, 2014

Ruin Lust
Tate Britain, London until 18 May

On mornings in January 1941, after some of the heaviest air raids of the war, the writer Rose Macaulay walked through London in a state of exhilaration. She later wrote in The Listener: “If you do wake alive, you may enjoy – when you go out – observing the fresh ruins…We stroll and see the sights; here is a jumbled pile that was a house, and dangling, poised at its very top, high above the street, is a large bath and broken lavatory basin and seat…around the corner a ruin of a house with a little Austin set on the summit, blown up there by the blast.”

Like many other Second World War writers, including Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene, Macaulay indulged in the pleasures of viewing the intoxicating and strange bricolage of bombsites. She would later try to fold these “new ruins” into a longer history – personal and aesthetic – of devastation, fragmentation and recognition, Pleasure of Ruins (1953). Ruin Lust, the Tate’s virtuosic new exhibition, shows well how the imagination has long fed off destruction of all kinds: from gradual decay to cataclysmic rupture. Moreover, ruins are inevitably entangled between the present moment of viewing and versions of both past and future; versions that twist together imagined aspects and tactile complexities. The curator Brian Dillon has assembled much that is impressive: the show starts with kitschy hysteria in John Martin’s gargantuan The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), counterpointed by the monochrome Azeville (2006), a massive photograph by Jane and Louise Wilson of the remains of the Nazi “Atlantic Wall”: a bunker – the first of several – brooding in menace.

Two rooms on the “pleasure of ruins” bring obvious highlights: Piranesi, John Sell Cotman and J. M. W. Turner. Yet there is also a knowingness here: Peter Van Lerberghe’s painting of the ruin-gazers at Tintern Abbey (1802) – a place loved by so many from Wordsworth to Turner – is titled By Moonlight, but what it actually shows is rather different: at night the local guides are holding flaming torches aloft to illuminate the ruins, and showing round the paying guests who promenade in couples: antiquarianism as flirtation.

This exhibition – its title an imported Germanic convulsive-shudder of desire – is also perceptive on the importance of the human form: the perceiving eye and trembling finger matter as much as the materials that are arrayed in decay or torn asunder. There are parallels for this in literature too: Greene wrote in The Ministry of Fear (1943) of a taxi ride through London that reminds the amnesiac protagonist (his mind itself a tottering ruin) of Pompeii, as he travels “along the ruined front of the Strand: the empty eyes of an insurance building…The mischief faded from his eyes as the taxi looped round the gutted shell of St Clement Danes.”

Back in the exhibition, wounded eyes also seem present in Graham Sutherland’s paintings of the Blitz, including Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse (1941), with its optical-elliptical forms of burnt coils and rolls staring back at the viewer. But for full bodily shock Muirhead Bone’s Torpedoed Oil Tanker (1940) is extraordinary, the ship now in dry dock revealed as having entrails and membranes, torn-apart viscera in twisted steel.

Violence is not the only way ruins are created – and indeed Ruin Lust gives space to John Latham’s 1970s attempts to redesignate post-industrial spoil heaps as monuments; and also the conceptual playfulness of Gerard Byrne’s less successful desire to produce a video installation redramatising futurologism from sci-fi luminaries. But the writer whose presence most potently stalks through the exhibition is J. G. Ballard. His discovery of psychic potential in the ferro-concrete dreamscapes of blank rooms and island test-sites re-emerges in Tacita Dean’s work, especially her films. Her Sound Mirrors (1999) portrayed the aurality of vast cracked-concrete arcs: early warning systems for bomber aircraft that are still standing in Kent. They subsequently became sites of pilgrimage for architects and others; the band The Prodigy tapped into their resonances with manic awe in Invaders Must Die. Dean’s Kodak (2006), on display at the exhibition, lacks the awe of the mirrors, but instead becomes plaintively meditative: the production lines of a French factory captured in the medium of some of the last film they ever made.

“Extreme tourism” has brought a rather different set of ruins into the popular consciousness – typified by the “ruin-porn” of central Detroit. This reaches an apogee in the tours now offered to Chernobyl, entering the exclusion zone that has been abandoned since Reactor 4 exploded in 1986. Yet the radioactive forest and the blockhouse-sarcophagus are only supporting attractions; central to these trips is the abandoned city of Pripyat. Now overgrown, mainly with birch, willow and alder, the crumbling Soviet architecture offers a combination of decaying Cold War chic and a distinct pleasure in wilderness. Pripyat doesn’t make it into Ruin Lust – but the final room of the exhibition is filled with a home-grown British melancholia, as Rachel Whiteread’s photographs record how modernist architectural dreams, encoded with the hopes of post-Second World War society, are literally blown up.

Ruins, no matter how violently created, always seem to be integrated into a wider history of transience – and fatalism – when plants and trees start to colonise the spaces left behind by humans. In so many of the paintings on display, every piece of crumbling stone is surpassed by the organic energy in leaf, tendril and branch. In Joseph Gandy’s aerial cutaway view of the new Bank of England (1830; commissioned by John Soane, the building’s architect), the structure is opened up to reveal the inner workings, imperial solidity morphing into a classical monument – and one where the manufactured pathos is framed by sturdy trees recolonising the site.

This, too, is mirrored in “ruin lust” literature: Alan Weisman imagines in The World Without Us (2008) how “the ruins of high-rises echo the love songs of frogs breeding in Manhattan’s reconstituted streams…a maturing forest is radiating down former streets and invading empty foundations”, all becoming – in the words of Rose Macaulay – “enjungled and engulfed”. This is not necessarily a tranquil process: in Ballard’s Hello America (1981) the characters discover a new tropical rainforest caused by climate change: “The dawn world of the forest floor, a shadowy realm of suburban stores and houses split apart by huge palms and oaks…the thousands of leaking swimming pools are slime green tanks crammed with water-lilies, roosting places for flocks of cranes and flamingos. Los Angeles is a bizarre sight. The great freeways are linear gardens, tapestries of Spanish Moss.” But this is not a pastoral vista: helicopter gunships blaze into the flocks of birds; and in the jungle Las Vegas plays roulette with nuclear missiles.

Yet the strangeness of ruined London is even more potent and has a longer history. Standing among these works even the ponderously solid Tate Britain seems to invite trembling curiosity at its own potential for elegant collapse. This paranoia is aided in Ruin Lust by such memento mori as Gustave Doré’s The New Zealander (1872), which portrays an artist from a putative future sketching a London scene showing the Thames and, beyond, shattered buildings of the capital: perhaps the most famous depiction of a depiction of ruins. Indeed, the Thames outside the gallery – calmer today than in recent weeks – also floods through a bricolaged debris of texts as well as images as an agent of ruination. In Richard Jefferies’ After London: or, Wild England (1885) the title itself gives the plot and could still serve as an epitaph for what will eventually come, as “this marvellous city, of which such legends are related, was after all only of brick, and when the ivy grew over and trees and shrubs sprang up, and, lastly, the waters underneath burst in, this huge metropolis was soon overthrown”.

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