Brian Dillon, co-curator of Ruin Lust, a new show at Tate Britain offering a guide to the mournful, thrilling and comic uses of ruins in art, takes a close look at a mysterious collage that caught his eye

John Stezaker, 'The Oath' 1978
John Stezaker
The Oath 1978
Collage on paper
unconfirmed: 198 x 248 mm
Purchased 2007© John Stezaker

John Stezaker’s collages often involve unsettling disruptions to faces or bodies, sliced by the artist’s scalpel or bisected by the edges of two images. A kind of ruin or decay lies behind Stezaker’s early work: in the 1970s, failing British cinemas had begun to close, and the artist bought up many of the film stills once displayed in their lobbies. His work has also included literal ruins, as in The Oath. A postcard showing a ruined classical temple, with the Mediterranean in the background, has been inserted into a courtroom scene from a 1950s French film. As always with Stezaker, it’s an ambiguous meeting. Are these two photographs unrelated, or is this ruin being imagined by one or more of the characters in the courtroom?

The Oath was one of the first works my co-curators and I were sure we wanted to include in Ruin Lust. (We’re showing it in conjunction with two collages from his Mask series which also show ruinous scenes.) It picks up one of the motifs – the classical ruin – that’s central to the story the exhibition tells about artists’ fascination with destruction and decay. So it sits quite neatly alongside works by Piranesi, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. But it connects the motifs of this earlier phase of ‘ruin lust’ with artists from the twentieth century such as Ian Hamilton Finlay and Patrick Caulfield, and beyond with the work of Tacita Dean. Photography and film have been crucial to the later representation of ruins, and Stezaker invokes some of that history here. It’s a work that’s self-aware but still very mysterious: ambitions we also have for Ruin Lust.

Ruin Lust is on display at Tate Britain until 18 May 2014