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Book Review: Ruins (Documents of Contemporary Art)

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is a languorous ode to ruination. A couple of eternal lovers have outlived generations of men and their great and noble ideas only to find themselves in a modern world that, for all its unblinking readiness, is languishing still. Having so far made it undead, the two vampires finally begin to comprehend dying. The city of Detroit, former industrial Olympus and present-day ghost-town, serves as a fitting backdrop to the lovers’ nocturnal promenades as they try to catch a glimmer of past splendour in the decay around them. The ruined city becomes symbolic of the slow ruination of the human race, its crescendo of heroism and decrescendo of defeat. The lovers, who once had not far to seek for food, are awakened to a world of polluted bloodstreams and possible starvation.

Ruins wield such immense suggestive power – they are the frozen instances which hold both the past and the future in them as we, of the present, look at them with a temporal dyslexia. The cult of the ruin saw its heyday in the Romantic circles of the 18th and 19th centuries, following a rise in expeditionary and archaeological interest in Europe. In the aftermath of World War ll, the ruin begged to be noticed again. But it was a different ruin and did not, or could not, offer the aesthetic gratification of the Romantic ruin. As opposed to the natural ruin of the past centuries – architecture exposed to the workings of weather and time – this was premature and unnatural ruination; industry had tripped on its own speed and advent.

Starting from these chronological and contrasting readings of ruins, writer, art critic, and curator Brian Dillon explores “the contemporary state of, and justifications for, ruin aesthetics” in Ruins, a 2011 instalment in Documents of Contemporary Art, published by Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press. Each book in the series is an anthology of essays and excerpts on a concern, motif, or means integral to the creation and understanding of contemporary art. And for a compilation on ruins, there could hardly have been a better choice than Dillon, who also curated the comprehensive exhibition ‘Ruin Lust’ at Tate Britain in 2014.

Dillon’s approach to the subject is in equal parts poetic and scholarly, conjectural and historical. The book is divided into four parts, each positing a take on ruins that corresponds to a unit on a timeline stretching from the early 1900s to now, encompassing such events crucial to the formation and study of ruins as the cold war and suburbanisation of cities like St Louis in the mid to late 20th century. The first chapter – “Modernity in Ruins” – looks at the remains of the last century’s outpourings of constructed and manufactured spaces and goods. It surveys the ruin as a site of contemplation (Denis Diderot, in “The Salon of 1767”, writes: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand”) and of tension (Georg Simmel, in “The Ruin”, published in 1911, calls the ruin a juncture for antitheses, for “purpose and accident, nature and spirit, past and present”).

There are essays also on a softer, almost feminine, aspect of ruination. This is the tardy phenomenon you and I know as dust. Dillon offers extracts from Celeste Olalquiaga’s The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (1998). Olalquiaga muses on the role of dust in the Victorian era (it was evidently an ‘arch-enemy’ of the finicky Victorians who liked protecting things with glass), and on how dust brings us closer to objects simply by drawing our focus to their tactility. Dust exposes surfaces by covering them; it “brings a little of the world into the enclosed quarters of objects”. “Belonging to the outside, the exterior, the street,” writes Olalquiaga, “dust constantly creeps into the sacred arena of private spaces as a reminder that there are no impermeable boundaries between life and death.”

The second part of the book, titled “The Military-Industrial Sublime”, charts the failure of modernity to sustain its utopic visions following the World Wars, which brought not only destruction but a general disillusionment with efficiency and calculation that can perhaps be summed up best by Robert Venturi’s retaliatory dictum: “Less is a bore”. In “A Handful of Dust” (2006), J. G. Ballard memorably presents an important example of the military-industrial ruin – the fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall. “The Atlantic wall”, he explains, “was only part of a huge system of German fortifications that included the Siegfried line, submarine pens and huge flak towers that threatened the surrounding land like lines of Teutonic knights. Almost all had survived the war and seemed to be waiting for the next one, left behind by a race of warrior scientists obsessed with geometry and death.’

Ballard’s admiration of modernism is set against a pressing awareness of its shortcomings, primarily its inability to be nurturing. The demise of modernism, according to Ballard, can be seen ‘in 1960s kitchens and bathrooms, white-tiled laboratories that are above all clean and aseptic, as if human beings were some kind of disease.’ Panoramic but deeply empathic in his breakdown of modernity and what it did not bring us, Ballard proposes that “(m)odernism lacked mystery and emotion, was a little too frank about the limits of human nature and never prepared us for our eventual end.’

In “Sound Mirrors” (1999), British visual artist Tacita Dean, in a similar fashion, visits and speculates on another military relic: the acoustic mirrors that were built as a warning system against air attack at Dungeness during World War l. Her view of the eerie remnants covers also the desolation of Dungeness itself, the pebbly, ascetic beach that “feels 1970s and Dickensian, prehistoric and Elizabethan, Second World War and futuristic.” The sound mirrors were unsuccessful for they picked up the sound of not only aircrafts but traffic, wind, and passenger ships. The development of radar made them redundant, and after an order for their demolition got lost during the war, “these listening monoliths were spared and left to stand, solemnly eavesdropping on the sounds of Dungeness into the next century.”

The final two sections of the book address environmental decay, in Drosscape, and the ruin’s ability to conjure images of the future, in “The Future Now”. Robert Smithson, late American visual artist and writer, provides much of the inspiration to Dillon for Drosscape, and the section begins with an excerpt from Simthson’s essay, “The Crystal Land” (1996). Characteristically filled with wonder at geological and terrestrial richness, Smithson describes a quarry and the synthesis of nature and technology that he finds in it. “An infinity of surfaces spread in every direction. A chaos of cracks surrounded us,” he recounts, adding, “On the top of a promontory stood a motionless rockdrill against the blank which was the sky.” The rockdrill, reminiscent in its portentousness of the windmill in Pieter Breugel’s The Procession to Calvary, drives home Smithson’s engagement with oppositions and equipoise.

Essays in “The Future Now” examine works by contemporary artists such as Julie Mehretu and Roger Hiorns, and filmmakers like 2010 Turner Prize nominee, The Otolith Group. Dillon takes the reader on a fascinating and educational field trip in Ruins, but one thing you do take home with yourself is the realisation that at the heart of all these musings and hypotheses on ruination is a very palpable and tremulous consciousness of mortality, of man’s and man-made’s (whether object or place) susceptibility to decay and death. There is a fear and an acquiescence to the fear that one day the earth will turn the tables on us, on our architecture, and reclaim its wilderness.

Ruins (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art). Edited by Brian Dillon. Published by 240 pages, 2011.

Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.

 

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