Tate Britain's Ruin Lust exhibition forges new relationships between historical and contemporary artworks which focus on the use of ruins. In this interview, artist Laura Oldfield Ford, whose work sits opposite a nineteenth century watercolour by Joseph Gandy, reflects on the dialogue between her work and those surrounding it
Firstly, were you surprised when you found out that your works were going to be part of Tate’s Ruin Lust exhibition? Was the idea that you could be described as an artist who was ‘obsessed with ruins’ a surprise to you?
No, not at all. I have always felt drawn towards ruins, they are a recurring motif in my work. I am interested in places that are derelict, laid to waste. I’m interested in how places respond to economic fluctuations, and how the potential for radically different ways of engaging with those spaces can emerge. For me the most significant sites are those that are trapped between abandonment and speculation; they are liminal zones that aren’t owned by anyone yet are imbued with memories and also ideas about what the future should look like. I examine ruined and abandoned spaces from the perspective of the inhabitant or occupier thinking about how spaces can be transformed and reconfigured in that moment of occupation… a temporary kind of occupation, the fleeting, intense kind.
Intense moments like rave culture, punk, cataclysmic events, riots and sustained periods of protest and disorder transform the way that architecture behaves. They transform the way it is used. Buildings can become fortresses, or they can become sites of surveillance. Walkways can become sites of aerial bombardment…
In the exhibition your two works – ‘Ferrier Estate’ and ‘TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street’ – are hung directly opposite Joseph Gandy’s nineteenth century watercolour, ‘Aerial cutaway view of the Bank of England from the south-east’. In the same room we also have artworks by James Boswell, Patrick Caulfield and Ian Hamilton Finlay. When you first saw the exhibition, were you surprised to see your pieces in conversation with these artworks?
Well for me this is great curating. My work talks about the different possibilites that can be glimpsed in moments of ruin and economic collapse and it’s being shown here with works where we can see cracks and fissures appearing at different political and social levels throughout history. Joseph Gandy’s ruined bank of England is suffused with a kind of exquisite anxiety, it is melancholy and opens spaces for conjecture about economic systems and the city, and as such is the emblem of our age. TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street shows how during social unrest buildings take on new roles. The painting is about plotting and dreaming in those moments.
Tell us more about ‘TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street’
For me this work is autobiographical. It’s inspired by different moments but particularly from the early 1990s, which was a turbulent time for me. It was the end of a recession, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was coming into place; the whole fabric of the landscape was changing. There was a shift towards a more exurban model of planning, more reliance on the car and out of town retail parks. I was squatting at the time and these derelict inner city estates were militant places. But this painting doesn’t just focus on the past, I think it also it also refers to current economic situation.
There are certain times when architecture becomes imbued with heightened emotional states, I remember the feeling of a collective sense of euphoria or anxiety…and how the fabric of the architecture seemed to respond to that. My use of fluorescent pink and acid yellows is an attempt to articulate that.
How do you think this society in years to come will perceive the tower blocks, shopping centres and high rises of today? Are these ‘the ruins’ of the future?
Already many of the 60s and 70s builds are seen as failures and ruins, they have been starved of investment and left to fall into a state of chronic disrepair and the architecture has been wrongly maligned in most cases. I think new developments, these bombastic, glass and steel buildings that are being built in the city, are the ruins of the future. These buildings are appearing everywhere in London, being sold offshore and left to stand empty while most people are struggling to pay rent in cramped, shoddy flats. I don’t think it will be long before the bubble will pop. I also don’t think it’s beyond the imagination that squatters will appear in these places soon too.
On display near your work is a set of 8 lithographs by James Boswell, entitled ‘The Fall of London’. In these works Boswell imagines horrific scenes of a fascist invasion of London. He took great inspiration from walking around the city in the evenings, particularly when it was dark and deserted. Do you find drifting around cities and urban areas a great source of inspiration?
Definitely. I go out on drifts around the city and this is really the genesis of everything in my work. Like Boswell, movement and shifting perspectives are really important to me. My work TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street is also, like Boswell’s, part of a series depicting movement through interiors and architectural spaces. It is psychogeographical in the sense that the work comes from wandering around with no purpose other than remembering, speculating about the current socio-poilitical situation and noticing the emotional charge of a particular place. My current Research Fellowship at Kingston University allows me to extend my research further, into the suburbs, where I can explore the relationship between the suburbs and the inner city.
Set in the context of the 1930s, Boswell’s work can be understood to be very politically engaged, much like your own. When did your involvement with politics begin?
I grew up in Yorkshire in the 80s which forced you to choose sides, there weren’t many there supporting Thatcher. I have always been involved in protest movements and marginal scenes. I’ve always been obessed by subcultures and was involved in different scenes, such as the Free Party and the Punk and Anarchist scenes. I was around people who talked about politics and ideas and wanted to transform space through occupation like Reclaim the Streets (RTS) and the M11 road protests. This has all had a massive influence on how I think. The bands I was listening to influenced me – the Anarcho punk groups like Crass – and the essence of what they stood for when it mutated and emerged at various points in soundsystems like Spiral Tribe, in the Criminal Justice Bill (CJB) protests, anti capitalist and squatter scenes. Politics is so much part of my work and I don’t need to try and make it evident – it has a fingerprint on everything I do, it runs through all my ideas. And as I’ve got older it has shifted into more of an interest in theory and philosophy. For me the street is always the most important place.
Even further back, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, anxieties about the present and future are evident in the artwork in this show. Is the ruin a particularly potent symbol of social unrest for you?
It is one of many symbols I use. I’ve created works which show Westfield in ruins, or the Shard overlooking ruined estates. For me ruins represent unrest, but ruins can also be contemplative. Derelict streets and estates are also places that open up space for experiments with different ways of living, of organising – they are sites of plotting, meeting and regrouping. I think of the big squatted estates of London in the 90s, the role they played as convergence centres, and meeting places in the run up to sequences of unrest. Also the Crescents in Hulme in Manchester, where people from all over the UK would gather and share information and ideas in a state of collective intoxication. The rave scene was transforming abandoned spaces, ecstasy was creating a sense of a militant collectivity and that changed the protest movement. You can see it most obviously in the CJB stuff and then subsequent RTS situations where soundsystems are on the street and there is a radical refashioning and reuse of the street. The abandoned and ruined spaces would be where the scheming, the logistical stuff would happen. For me, ruins also represent a plot.
And as an artist, do transhistorical shows such as Ruin Lust offer a fresh perspective on your work?
They do. I’ve thought more about temporality, of locating my work in a sequence of events rather than a linear notion of time. In this exhibition you see a compression of time; you realise that in certain cataclysmic moments time explodes, the decades vanish and you are suddenly part of a constellation of intense historical moments.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a book about the liminal zones of England, this is a series of journeys where I ask questions about English identity, about nationalism and class. My work in Kingston on the suburbs forms part of this research, it is looking at marginal political ideologies and the attitudes, ideas and tendencies fomenting in the suburbs, in those sites where London begins to give way. Many of the old ideas we had about the inner city being places where different political and religious ideas would collide and splinter seem to have shifted out to the more peripheral parts of the city. I think in these places, the fact that there’s a different kind of space, a different landscape, allows ideas to resonate in unexpected ways, to become amplified in some way. It is as though the inner cities have become less porous and the suburbs are where you need to go to really listen to what’s happening. I think it’s interesting to note that in the 2011 riots, it was Edmonton, Croydon, Barking, places like that where the most sustained disorder took place. The suburbs have become a site of contemporary anxiety in the way that inner cities were, you see the tabloids running stories all the time about illegal immigrants sleeping under Heston flyover or living in garden sheds, these are the places I am interested in walking round. My research will culminate in a show at the Stanley Picker Gallery gallery in October with a new series of paintings, writings and drawings generated by these walks around Surrey, a county astonishingly rich in countercultural history, land contestation and political dissent.
Hannah has worked within the information and curatorial teams at Tate. She has previously studied the use of ruins in her academic research on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Ruin Lust is on display at Tate Britain until 18 May 2014