I was very thrilled when a few weeks ago I saw the announcement of the Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain for I do have a penchant for images of decay and destruction. The exhibition, which includes over 100 works by both past and present artists, was promising a journey through “mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art from the seventeenth century to the present day.” An ambitious promise, and, as it turned out, unfulfilled.
The exhibition opens with The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a fantastic painting by John Martin (who I am particularly sentimental about, as it was at the John Martin: Apocalypse exhibition at the very same gallery a few years ago that I met my boyfriend.) But besides that one, there are only a handful of images I found myself engaged with: a couple of Piranesi’s engravings of Rome, one outstanding Doré – The New Zealander (above), James Boswell’s beautiful lithographs from 1933 describing The Fall of London; Muirhead Bone’s Torpedoed Oil Tanker (below), and Graham Sutherland’s Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse 1. A very interesting image is An imagined view of the Bank of England in ruins by Joseph Michael Gandy (architect Sir John Soane’s draughtsman, called “the English Piranesi”.) A few years ago at Sir John Soane’s Museum (one of my favourite places in London, by the way) there was an exhibition dedicated to the works of “Soane’s Magician” and the fascinating relationship between those two idealists. As we read on the website, Gandy “understood Soane’s dreams – and demons – better than any contemporary. He juxtaposed the fantasies of his master’s youth with the realities of his later life; he compared the greatness of Rome with the littleness of modern London; understanding Soane’s preoccupation with posterity he showed him how his masterpieces would look as ruins of the future.” But despite the enormous talent, his uncompromising attitude prevented Gandy from establishing his own career as an architect and he ended up in a lunatic asylum in 1843. As for the Bank of England, it got demolished in what famous scholar of the history of art, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, described as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century.”
My main criticism of the exhibition is precisely the choice of the works. I would love to have seen more of Gandy’s works, as well as more of John Martin, more of Piranesi, and more of Doré. Or, as a matter of fact, more paintings, drawings, sculptures and other forms and media. Yet, the majority of the exhibited works are photographs, and while some of them are strong and thought-provoking (notably works by Jane and Louise Wilson and Rachel Whiteread), there are quite a few images which are neither particularly related to the theme, nor representing a significant quality. Paul Graham’s Troubled series consists of large scale uninteresting photographic depictions of roads with a bit of graffiti on them which could easily be part of the Boring Postcards book published by Phaidon in 2000. The same goes for Paul Nash’s black-and-white, “pseudo-Surreal” as Cooke calls them, photographs of Swanage in Dorset. Considering how many amazing photographs of decaying industrial landscapes I have seen, not only in books and galleries but on personal blogs and Flickr sites, these works seem to me completely out of place. An equally disappointing exhibit are Tacita Dean’s works – stunning found images totally ruined by the artist’s nonsense notes scribbled on top of them.
I left the exhibition rather unimpressed, if a little sad, and I agree with how Alaistair Sooke from the Telegraph described it: “more of an essay than an exhibition, let down by the quality of the works of art chosen to illustrate its argument.” I usually find Tate Britain exhibitions interesting and inspiring whereas on this occasion I felt let down by the three curators responsible for his show. I am coming to a conclusion that this is often the case with themed exhibitions as opposed to, for example, retrospectives. You really can’t go wrong if you put on a Francis Bacon show as the works themselves are incredibly strong and won’t fail to impress even if shown in a questionable arrangement. But what often happens with themes is that some works which fit into the theme very well are actually not very interesting, while those loosely related to the theme are being artificially linked with the others. As a result, the viewer feels confused and unsatisfied. A couple of paragraphs of clever writing with sophisticated words on the wall doesn’t help to make the exhibition more coherent. At the Ruin Lust exhibition, Room 6 is dedicated to the concept of “ruins in reverse”, conjured by artist Robert Smithson in 1967, according to which “modern architecture and infrastructure seemed not to fall into disuse but to rise into ruin.” To illustrate this concept they have used Gerard Byrne’s photographs which appear to have been taken in the 1960s. For the life of me, I cannot understand Smithson’s concept and how Byrne falls into that.
And yet ruins is a wonderful theme, which could be explored and presented in a much more engaging way. Instead of showing building surfaces “ruined” by graffiti, why not investigate the ruins of the 20th century? The subject of world war I and II is only briefly touched on here – “the conflicts of the 20th century brought destruction on such a scale that it seemed the picturesque idea of ruin might prove inadequate to describe the resulting wreckage,” we can read in the little booklet. Being Polish, I can’t help thinking of Warsaw, 80% of which got completely destroyed during the Second World War and so my parents’ generation grew up on its ruins.
There are two very interesting films that have been made in the recent years about Warsaw from that time. The City of Ruins (2010) created by Damian Nenow in 3ds Max depicts a flyover of the Liberator airplane over the razed and depopulated city of Warsaw. This very first digital stereoscopic reconstruction of a city destroyed during WWII is a tragic portrait of the enormous destruction which followed after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
The second film, Warsaw 1935 (2013), by Tomasz Gomoła, is a 3D reconstruction of the historical, original architecture of pre-war Warsaw which at the time was one of the most modern cities in Europe, called “Paris of the North”. Due to the dramatic events during the Second World War the city almost ceased to exist. The new Warsaw, which many Poles find ugly, was erected on the ruins under the socialist government, amidst conflicts, poverty, and tragic memories. “Today nobody is able to imagine what an impressive and inspirational city it used to be,” we can read on the Warsaw 1935 website, which is why this short film (the production of which took four years), is so valuable.
When I visit some of the areas in Warsaw where buildings look as if the time had stopped in 1945, the ruin lust turns into ruin lamentation. As much as I admire ruins on John Martin’s paintings of epic biblical disasters, seeing Warsaw tenements with staircases perforated by Nazi bullets, I cannot separate the aesthetics, however enticing, from their roots. After all, this is my country, and I’ve been affected by its history.
I feel similarly nostalgic whenever I pass the Battersea Power Station, built in the 1930s, which ceased to work in 1983, and has remained unused ever since. Various redevelopment plans have been made and failed, and the building, whose condition has been described as “very bad” by English Heritage, kept being passed from one owner to another until 2011, when a new redevelopment plan to build residential apartments gained planning consent from Wandsworth Council. This poses a question about the place of ruins in a modern city – should this stunning Art Deco industrial building be permitted to decay, or to be changed into something that will inevitably – pun unintended – ruin its character?