Ruin Lust – on at Tate Britain until 18 May – explores artists’ fascination with ruins from the eighteenth century to the present day. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition takes us on a journey through the many meanings of ruins: as sites of aesthetic pleasure, melancholy reverie, or war-torn devastation; as places of memory or premonitions of the future; as sites embedded in landscapes or encompassing entire cities. From Turner’s delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey from the 1790s to Laura Oldfield Ford’s disquieting paintings of present-day housing estates, ruins have for centuries been imaged by artists as places to think through the meaning of time: for all ruins, whether ancient or modern, invite (or perhaps demand) a kind of awareness that moves slower than normal, one that inhabits (for a moment at least) a gap, or a place apart.
Indeed, before we even enter the exhibition space of Ruin Lust, a series of quotations invite us to think in a certain way, to make the link between ruins as physical objects and what’s going on in our minds, whether an extract from W. G. Sebald’s late novel Austerlitz (2001) or James Joyce’s apocalyptic musings in Ulysses (1922). Why is it that gazing at ruins seems to mirror something fundamental in the human body? The title of the exhibition suggests that the act of looking at ruins is invested with libidinal energy, a kind of revelling in the sensual excess of decay that is perhaps rather unseemly. Yet, very little in this exhibition is suggestive of the kind of ‘ruin porn’ that is increasingly filling up the internet and the (electronic) pages of tabloid newspapers such as the Mail Online. Rather, here is ruin lust at its most refined, deriving more from the mind than the body. Only John Martin’s end-of-the-world bombast and Laura Oldfield Ford’s lurid canvases of post-punk revolutionaries waiting for action in ‘sink’ estates come close to the daemonic energy of the kind of ruin lust that draws in the crowds to the latest apocalyptic blockbuster or the Mail Online’s almost daily dose of ruin porn.
Indeed, much of the work on show in this exhibition is meant to direct us away from ruin lust towards a more contemplative or critical gaze. Thus Joseph Gandy’s extraordinary painting Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) shows John Soane’s recently completed building in the far distance future, its otherwise secure spaces opened up to view through a process of ruination. Here, ruin speaks of a kind of beauty in ageing, although to a contemporary viewer it cannot help but be a barbed critique of our bloated financial overlords. No lust here from the vantage point of a passing crow; only distanced longing perhaps. Back down to earth, Jane and Louise Wilson’s black-and-white photographs of the fantastical outsized sculptural objects that are the remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications speak more of alien presences than material excess, their mythic titles – Azeville (2006), Urville (2007) and Biville (2006) – signalling a temporal shift into some kind of mythic time. Like the revelatory ruins of the Statue of Liberty appearing at the end of The Planet of the Apes (1968), the Wilsons’ photographs seem to disrupt conventional notions of time – are these the ruins of a defunct ancient civilisation or those of our own in the far distant future?
What most of these representations steer away from is the sensual excess of the ruin, its power to overwhelm and envelop the subject, something the cultural geographer Tim Edensor has written beautifully about in his book Industrial Ruins (2005). It’s as if these images are saying: ‘don’t get too close to ruins – keep your distance so you can make them mean something else’. This pervasive sense of ruins as allegories is challenged directly by Laura Oldfield Ford’s paintings (and more generally in her practice as an artist). Rendered in shocking pink, her depictions of semi-ruined spaces are unashamedly tasteless and suggest that even (or perhaps especially) mundane dilapidation can be fertile ground for subversive desires. In TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012), the two young female figures are engaged in focused yet unspecified activity, amidst the shabby (but definitely not shabby-chic) interior of their modernist apartment. There’s something peculiarly repulsive about this painting, a feeling that is mirrored in the visceral quality of modern ruins. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens spoke eloquently about the ‘attraction of repulsion’ in Victorian London; Ford has rendered this in the contemporary city. Ruins, if they are ‘real’ rather than manicured, always produce this attraction of repulsion; they invite you to rub your nose in their material excesses, to roll around in their vulgarity, to delight in their repulsiveness. As Ford reminds us, to live in ruins is precisely to embrace them as ruins, to allow them to be places that incubate strange, fertile and potentially revolutionary desires.