Ruin Lust, an exhibition at Tate Britain from 4 March 2014, offers a guide to the mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art from the seventeenth century to the present day. The exhibition is the widest-ranging on the subject to date and includes over 100 works by artists such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, John Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Rachel Whiteread and Tacita Dean.
The exhibition begins in the midst of the craze for ruins that overtook artists, writers and architects in the eighteenth century. J.M.W. Turner and John Constable were among those who toured Britain in search of ruins and picturesque landscapes, producing works such as Turner’s Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window 1794, and Constable’s Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle' c.1828–9.
This ruinous heritage has been revisited – and sometimes mocked – by later artists such as Keith Arnatt, who photographed the juxtaposition of historic and modern elements at picturesque sites for his deadpan series A.O.N.B. (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) 1982–4, and John Latham whose sculpture Five Sisters Bing 1976, which was part of a project to turn post-industrial shale heaps in Scotland into monuments. Classical ruins have a continued presence in the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Stezaker. In works such as Keith Coventry's Heygate Estate 1995 and Rachel Whiteread’s Demolished – B: Clapton Park Estate 1996, which shows the demolition of Hackney tower blocks, we see Modernist architectural dreams destroyed.
The exhibition explores ruination through both the slow picturesque decay and abrupt apocalypse. John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum 1822 recreates historical disaster while Gustave Doré’s engraving The New Zealander 1872 shows a ruined London. The cracked dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance was a scene partly realised during the Blitz.
Ruin Lust will include work provoked by the wars of the twentieth century, including Graham Sutherland’s Devastation series 1940–1, which depicts the aftermath of the Blitz and Jane and Louise Wilson’s 2006 photographs of the Nazis’ defensive Atlantic Wall. Paul Nash’s photographs of surreal fragments in the 1930s and 40s, or Jon Savage’s images of a desolate London in the late 1970s show how artists also view ruins as zones of pure potential, where the world must be rebuilt or reimagined.
The exhibition will include rooms devoted to Tacita Dean and Gerard Byrne. Dean’s nostalgic film installation Kodak 2006 explores the ruin of the image, as the technology of 16 mm film becomes obsolescent. In 1984 and Beyond 2005–7, Byrne reimagines a future that might have been. The installation presents a re-enactment of a discussion, published in Playboy in 1963, in which science fiction writers – including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke – speculate about what the world might be like in 1984.
This transhistorical exhibition is curated by writer and critic Brian Dillon; Emma Chambers, Curator of Modern British Art; and Amy Concannon, Assistant Curator of British Art, 1790–1850. It will be accompanied by a book and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.
Banner image credits: Louise Wilson, Jane Wilson Azeville 2006 © Jane and Louise Wilson, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York