Hiding in the recently restored Grade II listed building at Tate Britain, Ruin Lust is an intimate yet compelling exhibition. The eight room display of decay widens our appetites to see rawer, architectural-focused art in the contemporary.
When approaching the exhibition, one is met with the monumental, yellow titling of RUIN LUST; something which can’t be missed when passing through the corridors of Tate Britain’s more modest façade of the permanent collection. After being handed an exhibition pamphlet, I entered the space slightly sceptical of what other colossal (and slightly unnecessary) themetisations had plastered themselves on the walls. However, I was greeted with quite the opposite approach to display.
I felt the exhibition really allowed for the works of art on display to pronounce themselves. With only a few small labels detailing the works names, authors and dates, (and some with extra information regarding the works history,) I felt free to wander from work to work without the pressure to read everything provided. Each work is self-explanatory, and could easily be fit within the ruin discourse by anyone starved of knowledge in weighty theory.
The mix of painting, drawing, photography, film and installation truly cemented this as an interdisciplinary show. A show promoting our societies obsession and fascination with what used to be and what is, within contemporary culture. Amongst the decomposing picturesque, several works stood out for me in particular.
The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822) by John Martin is the first immediate work on display in the exhibition, and was one of the central works to have emotional charge. The rich, scarlet colours which engulf the sky and the despair painted on those foreground figures, caused me to feel both pleasure – for its beauty, and melancholy – for its tragic happenstance. Other thoughtful works that provoked were the dark, haunting photographs by Jane and Louise Wilson. The raw, black and white imagery of decaying World War II Nazi bunkers filled me with an overwhelming sense of dread. Each of these photographs had a powerful effect on me, once again drawing out conflicting feelings of anxiety and curiosity.
Several other works I consider as highlights, stood out due to their simple pared down aesthetics. These included John Stezaker’s dreamlike collages and Laura Oldfield Ford’s contemporary representations of rundown British council estates.
Parallel to the brief wall texts providing narratives for each room, the pamphlet offered a series of literary quotes relating to both natural and urban ruins. I found these to be an interesting niche to the exhibition, providing spectators with a creative yet literary narrative on the theme of ruins over the centuries. These neither drowned the viewer in verbose jargon or confused the issues at stake.
Ruin Lust is a stimulating juxtaposition of the ruinous representations of the romantic era, and the rubble-filled, crumbling of contemporary, urban cityscapes. It is a mesmerizing, convincing and accessible approach to the subject, which will stay with you long after your visual encounter at Tate Britain.