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Ruins and ruination: from the Renaissance aesthetics of the sublime to the Zone

In this extended catalogue-essay, Brian Dillon addresses his favourite subject to nudge our thinking on ruins and ruination out of complacency and fixedness into confrontation with ambiguity

Ruin Lust is a mini-catalogue of 40 works from the Tate Britain exhibition of the same name, co-curated by Brian Dillon − respected essayist, critic and novelist. For those familiar with Dillon, the subject matter will come as no surprise: his work on ruins dates back a decade, and has traversed numerous formats in the meantime, starting with ‘Fragments from a History of Ruin’ (in a ruin-themed edition of Cabinet, which he also edited).

The short ‘History’ is Dillon’s ur text: it opens with the Renaissance’s attempt to decipher Classical ruins and the birth of an aesthetics of the sublime; it sweeps through the valorisation of ruins by the Romantics’ sense of the picturesque; it touches on the ruinous nature of Ruskin, and fades to the failed futurism and petulance of Modernist architecture’s utopianism. Cycling back (and forward) to the new picturesque of industrial ruins, it lands at kitsch by way of Theodor Adorno: ‘eternity appears, not as such, but diffracted through the most perishable’.

In 2008, Dillon started a project at the University of Kent titled ‘Ruins of the Twentieth Century’. This research led to Sanctuary (2011), a novella set in a deteriorating Modernist seminary, and Ruins (2011), an edited collection of ruin writing for Whitechapel/MIT’s ‘Documents of Contemporary Art’ series. The latter contained Italo Calvino’s itinerant stone half-city, the definitive measures of doing and undoing, of structure and decay of Georg Simmel, Paul Virilio and Anthony Vidler, and Rebecca Solnit’s ‘amnesiac landscape’, among others.

Dillon’s collected essays in Objects in this Mirror (2014), are not about ruins as such, although they give the impression he can’t help but happen upon them wherever he turns: Robert Smithson’s New Jersey is ‘a place of entropy and ruination, possessed by a toxic picturesque’; sound reflectors at Dungeness are in ‘an advanced state of decay … the ruins of a possible future’. Dillon writes on other things of course − wonderfully many other things. But, to aphorise in the tradition of a Dillon thesis (that something is ancient does not mean it is interminable; that something is silent does not mean it is mute), that his is the last word on ruins does not mean this book is his last word, just his latest.

The Ruin Lust text is an extended catalogue essay; its 60-odd pages are matched in total thickness by the book’s hardcover. Similar to the survey quality of ‘Fragments’ and Ruins, Dillon addresses his favourite subject as the subject of artists, to paraphrase the subtitle, from Turner to that most relentless of makers, ‘the Present Day’.

‘Our comfort with abandoned ideological pasts and foregone futures − the contemporary picturesque − is cynical’

A catalogue’s task is to hinge an exhibition to itself long after the show comes down, so Dillon must play tour guide and mortician, stitching the disassembled parts back together into a passable body. He strikes a summative voice − inclusive, curious yet measured − that renders even well-worn references oddly (if pleasingly) immanent: ‘Rome, Pompeii, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah’, he says on page 28, as if he just happened to have them on hand; ‘these are the great warnings from history and myth. And they still haunted the ruin aesthetics of the nineteenth century − the more so as classical sites were subject for the first time to the modern archaeological gaze’.

This is a familiar Dillon argument: ruins ‘began’ with ruin appreciation in the Romantic period. But the formative impact of the gaze is less the focus in Ruin Lust than the peculiar vantages and perspectives − transtemporal and/or fictive and/or impossible − artists have invented to collapse these valences into representation. Joseph Gandy’s painting of the Bank of England in luminous decomposition, which John Soane himself commissioned, sits gingerly but necessarily near to the unrealised anticipatory visions of Le Corbusier’s ville radieuse and Albert Speer’s ‘ruin value’. Just as the advent of photography sees Eugène Atget scurrying to capture the dilapidated Old Paris not yet augmented by ‘demolition artist’ Baron Haussmann, Kodak’s phasing out of Standard 16 film sees Tacita Dean use the last of it to capture production at the company’s factory.

Many artists in Ruin Lust are given a single sentence. Readers may not miss extrapolation of ubiquitous figures such as Soane and Speer, but many of Dillon’s compelling references are left dangling. Andrei Tarkovsky arrives and departs on page 41 with one of the more complex and potentially illuminating notions of ruin, which Dillon extracts from Stalker (1979): ‘In the Zone, nature and culture, landscape and ruin begin to bleed into one another, so that we can no longer truly say what is ruin and what its background, what is monument and what the dead thing it recalls.’

The desire to ‘read’ ruins and ruination in the manner of Renaissance scholars hasn’t left us. But our comfort with abandoned ideological pasts and foregone futures − the contemporary picturesque − is cynical. In the face of real and at-hand ruination, it no longer serves. As Dillon writes on Ruin Lust’s first page, ‘the further we explore the very idea of ruin itself, the less the whole category holds together’; and I suspect he thinks this is a good thing. Ruin Lust does not constitute an entirely new treatise − although one of those will likely appear soon − but it does show Dillon working hard as ever to nudge our thinking on ruins and ruination out of complacency and fixedness into confrontation with ambiguity, into the Zone.

Ruin Lust

Editor: Ryan Dillon
Publisher: Tate Gallery Publishing
Price: £9.99

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