Through the eye of the beholder

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“The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong in the broken places.” Perhaps Hemingway had a little insight into our ongoing romance with semi-destruction in his rather poignant line from A Farewell to Arms. Certainly his sentiment seems to be echoed in the new exhibition, Ruin Lust, at London’s Tate Britain, which opened this month

Spanning the centuries all the way up to the present day, the exhibition is the first of its kind and given the scope of work involved, appears to be long overdue. It begins with the eighteenth century craze for ruins that overtook artists, writers, and architects alike, featuring Turner and Constable, who were among those who toured Britain in search of ruins and picturesque landscapes. The result was 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).

While classical ruins continue to have their presence in the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and John Stezaker, alongside the awe and romanticism of some artists sits the deadpan mockery of others, as exhibited in Keith Arnatt’s A.O.N.B. or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (1982-4). The result is an exhibition that shows that ruins have an enduring second life as the inspiration behind an array of artistic endeavours.

Curiously it also shows ruins to have the capacity to be something remarkably positive and innovative rather than simply nostalgic, as is the case with John Latham’s sculpture Five Sisters Bing (1976), which was part of a project to turn post industrial shale heaps in Scotland into monuments, or Jon Savage’s images of a desolate 1970s London with the potential to be a living canvas of possibility.

Ruin Lust isn’t merely about the buildings themselves however, it also looks at the causes and speed of destruction. Works take into consideration both historic events, from the wars with images of the aftermath of the Blitz by Graham Sutherland, to natural disaster courtesy of John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Ultimately, the Tate Britain excels once again in delivering a diverse display of artistic style, mediums, and emotions, in a trans-historical exhibition that has so many interesting facets it’s both evidence of our ongoing fascination with the concept and reality of ruins, and proof that they are not so much the end of one story, as the beginning of another.

by Bonnie Friend

Ruin Lust is on at the Tate Britain, London, until  May 18, 2014.