Ruin Lust – Tate – 10.03.2014


Unfortunately, my sister and I expected this exhibition to be room upon room of derelict buildings. It wasn’t. Don’t judge and exhibition by it’s poster.

Some gems, just not enough.

Jane and Louise Wilson, Tacita Dean, Jon Savage and Rachel Whiteread.

Tacita Dean

In her films, photographs, drawings and installations, Tacita Dean has often explored obsolete structures and machinery that remind us of past visions of the future. These have included a television tower in the former East Berlin, 1930s acoustic early-warning systems on the south-east coast of England, and the technology of film itself. Kodak was filmed at the Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saône, using for its black-and-white sections some of the last monochrome standard 16mm film stock the company produced. The film is a portrait of a dying medium still capable of capturing ravishing images, in this case of its own process of manufacture.

The photogravures that make up Dean’s series The Russian Ending mostly show scenes of disaster or destruction: depictions of shipwreck, natural disaster or wartime desolation. The images are derived from postcards collected by Dean on her visits to European flea markets. The series takes its title from a convention in early Danish cinema whereby two versions of each film were produced: one with a happy ending for the American market, another with a tragic ending for Russian audiences.

Ruin Lust

Ruins are curious objects of desire: they seduce us with decay and destruction. The ruin may remind us of a glorious past now lying in pieces, or point to the future collapse of our present culture. Certain ruins are preserved as memorials, others demolished or rebuilt. For centuries artists have been attracted to ruins, seeing new ideals of beauty in their desolation, as well as sublime warnings from the past.

Ruin Lust (from the German term Ruinenlust) traces the history of this fascination from the eighteenth century onwards. Classical ruins haunted and inspired artists of the Romantic era, and many painters went in search of the crumbling picturesque. The Victorians imagined London in ruins, and the ruined city remains a compelling motif in our era of economic collapse. The wars of the twentieth century produced such wreckage that it threatened to exceed the very category of ruin. Will the same be true of current environmental crises? Perhaps in the work of contemporary artists we can find new uses for ruins and new dreams among the rubble.

The following is an article from the Telegraph by Alistair Sooke

“Ruin Lust” is a wonderful title for an exhibition. Strange and evocative, the phrase combines dereliction and vigour in a catchy paradox. Apparently it translates the German word “Ruinenlust”, which sounds like a Teutonic perversion, but is in fact a scholarly term describing the longstanding aesthetic obsession with decay.

While it is typical of the Germans to have invented a classification for this sort of thing, it is also true that ruins have proved alluring for artists since the rise of Romanticism during the 18th century, as Tate Britain’s new exhibition bears witness.

Suggesting surprising connections between artists of different eras, Ruin Lust is exactly the kind of offbeat, polemical and panoramic show surveying an idea rather than a single figure or particular movement that the Tate should be putting on. So why did I leave it feeling disappointed and frustrated?

It begins strongly enough. The first gallery contains three imposing works spanning almost two centuries. To the left is John Martin’s hyper-real vision of the apocalypse, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822). Silly yet mesmerising, it presents an incandescent Mount Vesuvius raining down fire and brimstone upon the Bay of Naples. Facing this is Constable’s full-size oil sketch for his six-footer Hadleigh Castle (1829), with its two craggy towers surrounded by gulls weighed down by heavy moisture crashing about a dramatic sky.

In between these behemoths is Azeville (2006), Jane and Louise Wilson’s black-and-white photograph of a wartime coastal fortification built by the Nazis as part of the Atlantic Wall. At its centre, beneath crumbling concrete overgrown with lichen and weeds, is a scary black void, like a great maw threatening to swallow us whole. There is something perversely compelling about it. This image stands as an emblem for the entire exhibition, enticing us to venture onwards.

After such a clear and promising start, though, Ruin Lust proceeds with woolly thinking and whimsical selection and display. In the second gallery, for instance, we find ample examples by Piranesi, Turner, Richard Wilson, Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman and others of the vogue for depicting Roman ruins and timeworn abbeys in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But there is little analysis of why this subject matter became so modish.

In addition, some of the images are paired with odd companions. While John Piper’s watercolour-and-ink drawing The Dairy, Fawley Court (1940) works well beside Cotman’s Doorway of the Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey (1803), since Piper had Cotman in mind, I did not understand the juxtaposition of Turner’s Temple of Poseidon at Sunium (Cape Colonna) (c 1834) with John Stezaker’s The Oath (1978). Aside from an obvious superficial connection – Stezaker’s collage includes a postcard of a classical ruin overlooking the Mediterranean, which is also the subject of Turner’s picture – there is little to link these two artists, who had different aims and achieved dissimilar effects.

Moreover, much of the art in the exhibition, such as Piper’s unexciting study of Romanesque architecture, is unremarkable and slight. This is the case with the pseudo-Surreal black-and-white photographs that Paul Nash took in the environs of Swanage in Dorset – and I say that as someone that has been visiting that part of the world, which I love dearly, since I was a boy.

Elsewhere, we see another photograph by Nash of wrecked aircraft in Oxfordshire, taken in 1940. The scene obviously inspired Nash’s much more poetic and powerful painting Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41), which presents the same dump of mangled aircraft like a vast sea beneath a crescent moon. Since this painting belongs to the Tate, why not show it here instead?

Patrick Caulfield is represented by two works: a minor screen-print called Ruins (1964), which, it strikes me, is more of a playful attack on Minimalist art than a profound engagement with the exhibition’s theme, and a large student set-piece from his final year at the Royal College of Art in 1963. Neither packs the punch of his mature paintings, which were shown at Tate Britain last summer.

Another student work, David B McFall’s sculpture Bull Calf (1942-43), is included because it recycles a 19th-century capital from a bombed bank. McFall carved the Portland stone beautifully, so that the young animal appeared soft and beguiling. But the overall aesthetic is far too indebted to his former teacher Eric Gill.

In a couple of instances, the art chosen to expound the exhibition’s argument is downright awful. Laura Oldfield Ford’s TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street (2012) is a woeful picture, given far too much prominence in the third gallery. In it, neon pink light floods a room in which two young women, possibly squatters, sit on a bed. The honking pink, coupled with a few measly drips and graffiti-like scrawls around the edges, is supposed to spice up the composition with a bit of subversive, punkish, anti-establishment pizzazz. But the tightness of most of the picture’s execution, as well as the prettiness of its characters, give the game away: this is a tame and conventional painting masquerading as something much more grimy and wild – a pictorial trustafarian.

Ruin Lust, then, is more of an essay than an exhibition, let down by the quality of the works of art chosen to illustrate its argument.

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