Graham Sutherland OM, ‘Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse’ 1941
Graham Sutherland OM
Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse 1941

Ruins in Reverse

Since the beginnings of ruin lust in the eighteenth century, scenes of decay have seemed to say as much about the future as the distant or recent past. In 1967 the American artist Robert Smithson coined the term ‘ruins in reverse’ to describe the manner in which modern architecture and infrastructure seemed not to fall into disuse but to ‘rise into ruin’. The novelist J.G. Ballard, in the same decade, viewed postwar concrete architecture as a premonition of its own ruin. The paradoxical futurism of the modern ruin has informed the work of such artists as Gerard Byrne, whose installation 1984 and Beyond restages a conversation, first published in Playboy magazine in 1963, in which science-fiction writers imagine urban life and global politics in the future. Their predictions may seem dated, but so perhaps does the very act of looking so eagerly towards the future. Byrne’s accompanying photographs show that many things have not changed so radically: the 1960s survive in the present.