Ruin Lust at Tate Britain, art review

The eerie beauty of ruins has seduced artists from Turner to the YBAs, as Zoe Pilger discovers at Tate Britain

“Walking along the beach some years ago, I noticed a dark structure emerging from the mist ahead of me,” the novelist JG Ballard wrote in 2006. “Three storeys high, and larger than a parish church, it was one of the huge blockhouses that formed Hitler’s Atlantic wall… A flight of steps at its rear led me into the dank interior with its gun platforms and sinister letter box view of the sea. Generations of tramps had dossed here, and in the stairwells were the remains of small fires, piles of ancient excrement and a vague stench of urine.”

This stunning piece of travel writing inspired twin YBAs Jane and Louise Wilson to visit the Atlantic Wall in 2006 and photograph the ruined blockhouses or bunkers, built by the Nazis to defend the coastline from France to Denmark and Norway. Their extraordinary images are some of the most poignant and powerful in a new exhibition at Tate Britain, which explores our lust for ruins (from the German ruinenlust) over the past three centuries.

Why do we lust after that which is past? How can the past somehow exist in the present? This is the conundrum of the ruin, which seduced aristocratic tourists on the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century and continues to appear in twitter feeds, captured through the romantic filter of Instagram. The condition of lusting after ruins seems both human and slightly obscene.

Co-curated by the writer and critic Brian Dillon, this exhibition is conceptual without being cold. From Turner to Tacita Dean, across painting, film, and sculpture, it explores the idea of the ruin “of the mind” as well as the real human history that underscores these monumental and often beautiful wrecks. It’s utterly absorbing and educational. I emerged from the gallery and looked at the skyline of London anew – the ruins we live among.

Urville (2006) is a vast black and white photograph by the Wilsons. It shows a hulking Nazi bunker, seemingly toppled on its side. The bunker looks like a broken Transformer toy – cartoonishly brutalist. The walls have been vandalised, as Ballard describes, and there too is the letter-box view of the sea. The bunker is surrounded by sand, and there are footprints leading up to or away from it. The sky overhead seems about to break into a storm. There is a sense of violence, held at a distance. It is a spectacular image – bold and tragic.

There is great sensitivity to the workings of power in this exhibition. Ballard saw a link between Nazi brutalist design and the postwar city planning in Britain that contained and controlled the working classes. This was one of the most radical elements of his thought and fiction. He wrote: “I realised I was exploring a set of concrete tombs whose dark ghosts haunted the brutalist architecture so popular in Britain in the 1950s… sprung from the drawing boards of enlightened planners who would never have to live in or near them.” Dillon  pursues this Ballardian theme with subtlety. Several works explore the ghettoization of the poorest in London, and the waste of uninhabited urban spaces. This brings the idea of ruin right up to date.

JMW Turner's 'The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window' (1794) JMW Turner's 'The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window' (1794)
Estate Map (1999) is a large work of acrylic paint and marker pen on an aluminium background by the artist collective Inventory. It shows a damaged and degraded map of the Marquess Road housing estate in Islington; the letters are eroded and the yellow blocks that signify houses are partly erased. The image is like an abstract painting, and, indeed, this is a living space abstracted out of existence. Across the bottom of the image, the artists have  written about the “feeling of absence” created by the fact that such estates are not included on city maps. They are blanks, their inhabitants both symbolically and actually excluded. This is part of “the ideological stranglehold of space which organizes any city”.

It is important that these politically committed works are included. While the idea of the ruin was aligned to the picturesque in the 18th century, referring to charmingly decayed medieval abbeys and classical temples, here the ruin is an issue of urban deprivation. One of the most influential writers on the picturesque was William Gilpin, who described Tintern Abbey in 1782 as “a very enchanting piece of ruin. Nature has now made it her own.” And Denis Diderot wrote in his Salon of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes…” Instead, many of these ruins are about contemporary Britain.

I love Laura Oldfield Ford’s large painting TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street (2012). It is striking because it shows an interior, domestic space rather than the exterior of a building. The domestic is historically feminine, but this is more riot grrrl than girly. Two women sit on an unmade bed, writing. They are ambushed on all sides by florescent pink paint. Oldfield Ford is influenced by punk, squatting, and rave subcultures, and the painting looks as though it were made in the Eighties. The women’s hairstyles are retro. Tweed House is a block of flats next to the Blackwall Tunnel in east London, an area of industrial spaces used by artists. Always precarious, this is a scene of creative life under threat. Artists are being priced out of London.

Joseph Michael Gandy’s A Bird’s-Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) appears all the more astonishing in light of the political anger of these works. It is a surreal and timely example of how the British establishment has evoked the idea of ruins in order to cement its own power. The large gold-framed watercolour painting was commissioned by the architect Sir John Soane, who designed the bank, to celebrate his own retirement in 1830. Rather than show the building in pristine condition, Soane asked Gandy to imagine it in a state of decay. The cutaway perspective allows you to see the interior of the building, evoking the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome. By accelerating the ageing process in this way, Soane is aligning his creation with the classical world. It’s absurd.

'Coggeshall Church, Essex' (1940) by John Armstrong 'Coggeshall Church, Essex' (1940) by John Armstrong
The painting itself is whimsical, nostalgic, lightly Romantic. The pale sandy palette and shafts of blue light falling from the left are Turneresque. Far from the busyness of central London, the bank is surrounded by an exposed red cliff face and a fallen classical statue. The suggestion is that civilization may fall, but the bank will remain. It belongs to the grace of things past, not present. This is mystification in action. It is an instance of how art has served the elites through the centuries.

This exhibition is astute and critical rather than cosy. It shows in a fascinating way how our understanding of the ruin has changed.  Following the mass violence of two world wars, the smoking, nightmarish cities left in their wake, the ruin was no longer an aesthetic ideal, viewed from a distance. It was no longer picturesque, but an immediate reality for those bombed out generations who were forced to rebuild their lives from nothing. To aestheticize such disaster without awareness would be wrong.

It is with great compassion, then, that Graham Sutherland painted the destruction of London during the Blitz. Employed as an official war artist, Sutherland’s gouache, graphite, pastel, and ink on card, Devastation, 1941: East End: Burnt Paper Warehouse (1941) is one of the most affecting works in this exhibition. It is full of pain and energy. Workers watch as the paper warehouse writhes like an animal, torn apart by a bomb. It seems to be spewing mechanical entrails. Paper is a symbol of  civilization – here destroyed. In some way, the painting brings to mind the hubris of those Nazi bunkers, “left behind by a race of warrior scientists obsessed with geometry and death”.

Ruin Lust, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8888) to 18 May

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'