I have always had a fascination with ruins, originating from my childhood spent romping around roman villas and dilapidated castles. This interest manifested with my love of gothic novels and the haunting architectural ruins that were brought to life by the Brontes. So naturally, I have decided to centre my dissertation on the aesthetics of ruins as an art historical theme.
The aesthetic tradition of ruins has been a fundamental theme within the western tradition of art history. Many art historians have noted the rise of the cult of ruins within art. It began as an 18th century phenomenon in the gothic period with the ruined abbey, abandoned asylums and fragmented graveyards causing aesthetic contemplation. The ruin became a prominent motif within Western art history, especially in Germany with David Caspar Friedrich’s haunting landscapes including Ruins of a Monastery and Churchyard in Snow (1819). The landscape tradition of the period was integral to the cult of ruins, with these dilapidated vistas being referred to as Sublime and Picturesque.
This gothic fascination with the ruin has become a fundamental trope within our culture due to our morbid fixation on the transience of life and unearthing of our ultimate doom. Its origins began in the gothic period but is still relevant today as the romantic ruin, a symbol of a previous life no longer in existence, has now been replaced with the modern ruin – a much more tangible facet of contemporary life, which displays the failing ideologies of the technological revolution.
Within the last twenty years, contemporary theorists have produced a considerable wealth of material on ruin theory – artistically, sociologically, historically, philosophically and psychological. Brian Dillon is one of the leading researchers of ruin aesthetics and has produced numerous articles for the Guardian and Frieze Magazine on the topic. Dillon believes that the contemporary fascination with the ruin is due to the detrimental effects of our economic output in the 90s, which caused a major decline of prosperous industrial sites around the world. This belief in the modern ruin being a post-industrial, post-capitalist, post-modern and post-technological manifestation is something I agree with. There seems to be an acute awareness within contemporary thought on the mutability of time and the inevitable decline of humanity, despite technological and industrial endeavours. The industrial ruin has replaced the romantic ruin, as many of our cities are in decline due to economic displacement. Therefore a contemporary artistic language is relevant, in order to capture this intrinsic factor of our culture. Contemporary artists have used film, photography, sculpture and paint to decode this modern complexity and it has been the focus of many contemporary art exhibitions.
My favourite contemporary photographers who explore this idea of modernism’s ruins are Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre with their portrayal of Detroit’s decline in The Ruins of Detroit (2010). It portrays Detroit’s fall from a cathedral of industry in the 30s due to the capitalist exploration of the Ford River Rogue Plant. Consequently Detroit has become a key artistic focus to explore the ravages of the economic downturn for contemporary photographers. Marchand and Meffre’s subliminal portrayal of the decaying Detroit landscape, captures this contemporary fascination with the disenchantment of capitalist society and the cult of the ruin aesthetic. Their photo book depicts dilapidated structures, which were previously opulent architectural buildings, now neglected and left to deteriorate. America, because of it’s vast mass, does not have the economic infrastructure to save whole cities from ruination and I believe this will become a familiar landscape for many of its prosperous cities. Detroit was the epicentre of the American Dream, a place of hope, job prospects, wealth and commerce. Marchand and Meffre beautifully capture the extreme destitution of the architectural landscape, almost akin in its beauty to the ruins of Ancient Rome. A place once so prosperous, whose power through car manufacturing, dominated the world- ‘Detroit has literally created, produced and manufactured the world, creating a logic that has eventually annihilated, destroyed the city itself. We learn about this dazzling rise and fall through the remains of that contemporary Pompeii, with all the archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification.’
The ruin aesthetic has never been so poignant within our culture, as the industrial ruin could be our future. We are living in a time of economic injustice and this coupled with global warming, causing freak natural disasters, make the ruined city a commonplace vista. Therefore an exploration into the cult of ruins as a contemporary art theme is relevant within this societal context. The ruin in art acts as a modern day momemto mori within the art historical tradition. Marchand and Meffre’s photographs are a proto-momento mori, through the use of a truly contemporary medium – the photograph. Their images reflect the transience of human nature and the ultimate power of nature over man and his machines.
If you are interested in the aesthetics of ruins as an art theme, Tate Britain are currently running an exhibition called Ruin Lust curated by Brian Dillon, showcasing British artists such as Tacita Dean, Turner and Paul Nash, from the last 300 years who have explored this idea.
By Maisie Waters