Ruin Lust at Tate Britain

Tate Britain, London
Until 8 May
Interview by Shumi Bose


Ruin Lust offers a trans-historical guide to the mournful, heroic and even perverse appreciation of the ruin in art from the 17th century to present day. Shumi Bose spoke with writer and critic Brian Dillon, who curated the exhibition alongside Emma Chambers and Amy Concannon.

Shumi Bose: I hadn't realised that Ruin Lust came from a German word.

Brian Dillon: We keep being asked whether we've chosen the phrase over Ruin Porn, which people keep using. I came across the term 'Ruin Lust' in Rose Macaulay's book Pleasure of Ruin, published in 1953. It's not a completely wrong-headed comparison - there is a crass tendency to think of things that people like as porn, and there is certainly something about desire in this subject.. Lust, we hope, implies something a bit more complex than the superficial consumption suggested by porn.

Jane and Louise Wilson, Azeville, 2006 Courtesy the Tate Collection

Jane and Louise Wilson, Azeville, 2006 Courtesy the Tate Collection

SB: What's the relationship between the ruin and the 'Sublime'?

BD: Well, the ruin is not a classical phenomena; it's not medieval either, though there are a few examples - it's basically a post-Renaissance idea. Ruins play a part in at least three of the great aesthetic categories that apply to architecture, art and literature in the 18th century; the Sublime, the Picturesque - which was more localised, more human scale - and the Gothic. We wanted to signal quite early on a sort of modern sublime; we move from a modern appreciation of the ruin to a modernist appreciation. For example, Jane and Louise Wilson's photographs of the Nazi Atlantic Wall defences are really beautiful, and you can see a relationship with brutalist architecture, which is increasingly seen as a ruin of modernism today.

SB: Having identified some periods of history then, why do you think it's at those points - perhaps the moments of progress - that there is this reach for decay?

BD: That's very obvious to see in terms of the 18th century - but that kind of rapid progress is also linked to a sense of emergency, and fragility. For example in France, Hubert Robert - or Robert des Ruins, as he became known - painted the Louvre in ruins, and after the French Revolution this became a particularly charged gesture. In 19th century Britain, there's definitely a sense that Imperial expansion and mercantile confidence might conceal a sense of hubris. And so when John Soane commissioned Joseph Gandy to draw the completed Bank of England, what we get is this exploded perspective that gives you an awful lot of architectural detail, but purposely drawn to look like a classical ruin of this new building, entirely depopulated.

JMW Turner, Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794 Courtesy the Tate Collection

JMW Turner, Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794 Courtesy the Tate Collection

SB: There's also this strange takeover by nature in that image, creeping up on the building.

BD: Yes, I think that the image of the architectural the urban ruin is often affected by - perhaps even prompted by - some kind of ecological catastrophe. The idea of nature's inevitable return is shown very well in the great Gustave Doré engraving, The New Zealander (1872). The motif comes from an essay in which there was an idea that centuries in the future, a tourist might arrive from New Zealand to find London in ruins. Nature encroach on the city - and tellingly, one of the buildings depicted is Commercial Wharf, so it shows not only the ruin of architecture and civilisation, but also the decay of imperial power.

SB: Which could equally be a very contemporary concern - the ruination of ecology at the behest of commerce.

BD: We like that relationship, between someone like Gandy and Doré, to a contemporary artist like Laura Oldfield Ford, who talks about post-war modernism and the very vexed role that those buildings, particularly brutalist examples, play in Britain right now. Ford talks about the fact that we tend to look at these modernist ruins from the outside; she's starting to think about them from the inside out. Interestingly, not many of the other images are populated; if they are, they tend to show one or two small, male figures. Some of the recent work in the show is by women artists, who are often very aware of opposing this maledominated, ruin-loving gaze.

Tacita Dean, The Wrecking of Worthing Pier, 2001 Courtesy The Tate Collection

Tacita Dean, The Wrecking of Worthing Pier, 2001 Courtesy The Tate Collection

SB: There's a very literary vein running through the exhibition, and indeed a literature series alongside it.

BD: Lurking behind the exhibition there's a long literary tradition - for example through Tintern Abbey, there's a link between William Gilpin and Wordsworth; several of the works allude to the work of JG Ballard, WG Sebald or London writers, such as Iain Sinclair There is also whole room given over to the Irish artist Gerard Byrne, whose work often involves a restaging of historical texts. In the works we include here, Byrne recasts a roundtable discussion, originally published in a 1963 issue of Playboy, in which a dozen science-fiction writers - including Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury - were asked to imagine life in 1984. With this work we're even thinking about how imagining the future itself could be sort of antique: there's a sort of persistence of the past, even in the future that is being imagined.

SB: In terms of temporal confusion, what about our current fascination for things with a patina, for vintage, for things such as Instagram?

BD: For these earlier artists, that temporal confusion was real, as opposed to a style of aged-ness that we can apply - as we do now to sound, for example, or to images.

Or in terms of post-modern architecture, of recasting styles, to make things look like they were from the past. For artists before the Sixties, the sense that you're living in a number of different time periods symbiotically was an actual predicament, a problem.

There's an important distinction as well to make between ruins and monuments. Ruins are a temporary condition; what is seen as a ruin may not have been intended as such, and may not remain a ruin in the future.

For example, now it's possible to look at brutalist architecture with a sort of ruin-lust gaze, in terms of a picturesque decay, which would not have been possible 20 years ago. You can then place on them ideas of cultural value and preservation, which differ from ideas of, say, renovation.

Eduardo Paolozzi, Michelangelo’s ‘David’, 1987 Courtesy the Tate Collection

Eduardo Paolozzi, Michelangelo's 'David', 1987 Courtesy the Tate Collection

SB: Are there cultures either more prone or resistant to the idea of the ruin lust? What about Britain in particular, as a former industrial and also heavily bombed nation?

BD: I suppose the ruin in art is primarily a Western European phenomenon. In British art and culture there is a real tension and unease towards grandeur and the aspiration of the sublime - we don't really have the antique architecture, nor do we have the sweeping, sublime landscapes that Kant talked about. So the ruin takes on a picturesque, almost familiar, domestic scale. Keith Arnatt's photographs take on that romantic history with an almost comic sense.

And the photographs by Jon Savage, of a desolate London in the late Seventies, still shows evidence of areas that were either derelict or decayed; some of them show the ruination of the post-war rebuilding, which already in 1977 look monstrous and threatening, having invaded a still-historic city.

SB: I wanted to ask you about the romantic sensibility, even indulgence, that goes along with looking at ruin and devastation as pleasurable.

BD: Yes, I don't think that goes away, even if you're very aware of the political and social contexts - the wartime context, for example, in Tacita Dean's Russian Ending series. There's that sense of devastation and horror, but there's also an aesthetic distance. That ambiguity is one of the things that drew me to the topic. Ruins are never wholly prurient or nostalgic, horrific or mournful; it's always this complicated mix.

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