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Exhibition: Ruin Lust at Tate Britain

This broad retrospective on ruins brings together materials from the last three centuries to help us understand our fascination with decaying buildings

One odd cultural effect of the end of the Cold War was the return of the ruin. In the newly post-historical world, with any dreams of a different future seemingly put to rest for good, a fascination with dilapidation and decay began to seep back into artistic culture like a repressed memory. The 18th- and 19th-century obsession with the crumbling remains of antiquity, reminding the brash, industrialising, newly scientific world of the inevitability of its decline, began to reappear as an elegiac sense of loss among the seeming triumph of liberal democracy. In the last decade no critic has done quite so much to critically shape this fascination with ruins as Brian Dillon, and now, alongside Emma Chambers and Amy Concannon, he has put together a blockbuster show at Tate Britain, a guided tour through the 250-year history of ruin worship.

The first curatorial manoeuvre is a strong one, presenting three large works of similar size which set the terms for what is to come. Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ (c1828-9) by Constable is a large landscape with a dilapidated turret vainly guarding a rolling landscape below, and a billowing white sky above. Opposite is John Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), the Boschian hell to Constable’s garden. Between these two alternative 19th-century visions is a huge photo by the Wilson twins, Azeville (2006), depicting one of the Todt organisation’s proto-Brutalist Second World War bunkers along the French coast.

Twenty-first-century ruin culture is defined by ideas represented by these three images: from the earliest days of Ruinenlust, the wistful consideration of human transience within the lushness of nature is always haunted by its sublime counterpart − the vast, uncaring horror of extinction. More importantly, this 18th- and 19th-century romanticism critically resurfaced at the same time as artists began to take account of the long drawn out abandonment of 20th-century modernity and its promises, in the context of economic and ecological crisis.

There are a lot of works on show here. The first few rooms have dug deep into the Tate’s collection of Turners, and the walls are covered with watercolours, whose repetitive palette − blue sky, gold stone, green ivy − sets up a remarkably consistent ruin aesthetic. This reaches an apotheosis in JM Gandy’s celebrated 1830 perspective for John Soane, depicting the plan of the proposed Bank of England building as already ruined, a romantic gesture par excellence.

More contemporary work breaks free from this aesthetic formula, most notably Laura Oldfield Ford’s hyper-pink 2010 paintings and drawings of the Ferrier Estate, a vast system-built housing scheme in south-east London, left to rot and now completely demolished. Estates play a pivotal role in a number of the later works in the show, such as Keith Coventry’s ingenious recasting of estate maps as Suprematist paintings (on show here is his topical painting Heygate Estate (1995), currently undergoing the last stages of a scandalous social cleansing), or Rachel Whiteread’s photographs of the 1995 demolition of Hackney tower blocks, a beaten modernity triumphantly destroyed under a different political regime.

in 1995, a year after her great monument House — a kind of anti-ruin — was demolished by Tower Hamlets council, Rachel Whiteread shot the demise of estates in Hackney

in 1995, a year after her great monument House — a kind of anti-ruin — was demolished by Tower Hamlets council, Rachel Whiteread shot the demise of estates in Hackney
In 1995, a year after her great monument House — a kind of anti-ruin — was demolished by Tower Hamlets council, Rachel Whiteread shot the demise of estates in Hackney

Dillon has previously identified the birth of the modern ruin with Robert Smithson’s photo-essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, NJ (1967), where industrial detritus and quotidian spaces were reimagined as ‘ruins in reverse’. The modern ruin could thus shed its previously necessary links to the decay of buildings, and come to deal more with ‘ruins’ as a sign for alternative futures, paths untrodden, in a time of decline. The room given over to Gerard Byrne’s 1984 and Beyond (2005-7) is well worth an extended visit. Surrounded by images of the Unisphere from the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, three films depict actors in Mad Men-style costume re-enacting a series of futurological discussions which originally featured science-fiction writers such as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Azimov. Wandering around Rietveld’s sculpture pavilion in the pouring rain, surrounded by Barbara Hepworth sculptures, they discuss the rapid societal change of the mid-’60s and ponder what is to come. The melancholy of a squandered world is almost heartbreaking, with not a ruined pediment in sight.

Thematically, Ruin Lust has much in common with Patrick Keiller’s show The Robinson Institute, which occupied the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain in 2012, itself based upon his latest film Robinson in Ruins. But where Keiller attempted a more ambitious curatorial strategy, including books, music and historical objects such as meteorites or acts of parliament, the curators of Ruin Lust have gone for a more conventional hang, sticking very much to fine art. Some of the works from the early 20th century aren’t so powerful, being caught in a narrative gap between romanticism and postmodern hauntedness, but there’s more than enough great work here, from Piranesi engravings to Tacita Dean photographs, to stimulate a good forlorn ponder at the inevitable passing of things.

Ruin Lust

Where:  Tate Britain, London

When: Until 18 May

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