25 April 2014

Unbuilding, II

Returning again to the matter of ruins, there's the current exhibition at the Tate in London, titled "Ruin Lust." One of the exhibition's main curators is Brian Dillon, who's written a number of essays about the aesthetics of ruination in recent years. In fact, the Tate exhibit could be considered a straggling offshoot of an anthology on the topic that he edited for the Whitechapel Gallery's "Documents of Contemporary Art" series a few years ago.

The exhibition takes its name from the German term Ruinenlust, which hails back to the years of German Romanticism back in the late 18th century. In keeping with that Romanticist theme, the exhibit features works by Piranesi, Turner, Constable, and the like. From the looks of it, the selection is overwhelming drawn from the Tate's own collection -- including an assortment of works that include pieces by Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Latham, and a later, seldom-seen piece by Eduardo Paolozzi. Then there's the allotment by the most contemporary artists of the bunch including Keith Arnatt, and John Stezaker. Here we get a sense of the thematic thrust of the exhibit -- what is the sense of ruination that we have now, the sort that seems to too frequently emanate from our immediate surroundings? There's a great deal of recent work to illustrate this theme, be it the photographs that writer Jon Savage took around London over the course of two decades, Rachel Whiteread's photographs of tower blocks, Laura Oldfield Ford's drawings of housing estates, or David Shrigley's grimly sarcastic "Leisure Center."

With these examples, the exhibit zags into more charged territory, into the politics of space (public, domestic, etc.) in the contemporary built environment -- the anomie that too-commonly results from both well-intentioned civic pragmatism or the vagaries of rampantly haphazard real-estate speculation. Whichever the case, each included gives off a foreboding impression, if only because there isn't a human figure to be found in any of them. It's like a neutron-bomb school of urban development, reflective of the estrangement that results in a societal environ predicated on the logics of perpetual, unbroken progress, innovation, and "creative destruction." On this matter, one could turn to Dillon's Whitechapel anthology and find an excerpt from Mark Lewis's 2006 essay "Is Modernism Our Antiquity?", in which the author muses:
"The idea of a modernist ruin in the making, while compellingly seductive, seems depressingly elegiac and tautological at best. Didn't the images and forms of modernism have ruin, decay and obsolescence written into them? Was this not meant to serve as an inbuilt apotropaic function, all the better to protect against the future romantic appeal of their ruining? And do I really want to male an elegy to something like 'modernism's forgotten promise'? There's the rub. For today it is fundamentally a question of what is to be done as the artistic signs and images of emerging and developing modernity are rapidly becoming historical."
Lewis's rumination are, by his own acknowledgment, prompted by Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, in which Latour argued that modernism was a paradox to begin with -- an a priori double-bind, like a blueprint with the terms of its own abandonment and demolition included as a preconditional contractor's clause.

Also included are excerpts from Jane and Louise Wilson's Sealander, their series of photographs of derelict WWII Nazi bunkers littered along the coastline of Normandy. The Wilsons have repeatedly dealt in this type of subject of the years -- ominous remnants of the Cold War era like underground military nuclear missile facilities, the East Berlin Stasi archives, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan. The Sealander series of course follows after theorist Paul Virilio's Bunker Archeology, his book of photographs of the very same bunkers; his own taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s, after he came across the structures while roaming the beaches of Northern France. In the accompanying texts, Virilio passingly compares the bunkers and the modernist functional architectural forms of Le Corbusier and Brutalism, but asserts that as structures their utility was the product of another logic altogether -- that belonging to the culture of total war. At one point he writes:
"Anachronistic in normal periods, in peacetime, the bunker appears as a survival machine, as a shipwrecked submarine on a beach. It speaks to us of other elements, of terrific atmospheric pressure, of an unusual world in which science and technology have developed the possibility of final disintegration. If the bunker can be compared to a milestone, to a stele, it is not so much for its system of inscriptions as it is for its position, its configuration of materials and accessories: periscopes, screens, filters, etc. The monolith does not aim to survive down through the centuries; the thickness of its walls translates only the probable power of impact in the instant of assault. The cohesion of the material corresponds here to the immateriality of the new war environment; in fact, matter only survives with difficulty in a world of continuous upheaval. The landscape of contemporary war is that of a hurricane projecting and dispersing, dissipating and disintegrating through fusion and fission as it goes along."
At another:
"The immensity of this project was what defies common sense: total war was revealed here in its mythic dimensions. ...A long history was curled up here. These concrete blocks were indeed the final throw-offs of the history of frontiers, from the Roman limes to the Great Wall of China; the bunkers, as ultimate military surface structure, had shipwrecked at lands' limits, at the precise moment of the sky's arrival in war; they marked off the horizontal littoral, the continental limit. History had changed course one final time before jumping into the immensity of aerial space."

Curiously, the exhibit has its own set of accompanying workshops, the last of which is "The Unofficial Countryside," which focuses on "the modern edgelands that ring our cities and soft corners of the countryside," under the premise of asking "Industrial brownfields, landfills, suburbs: Are these the ruins of our modern age?" In the exhibition, this examination of terrain vague is exemplified by images from Keth Arnatt's landscape series A.O.N.B.(Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty); and by excerpts from Paul Graham's Troubled Land, his collection of photos taken throughout Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

Ruin Lust is also rounded out by selection of Tacita Dean's past work, and by the curious inclusion of a re-anacted version of Gerard Byrne's 1984 and Beyond -- a 3-channel video re-enactment modeled after an 1963 Playboy magazine roundtable discussion with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and eight other science-fiction authors, in which the participants were asked to give their speculative thoughts on what the future would be like.

* * * *

Speculative futures, ruination and entropy, terrain vague -- these things were a constant source of fascination and inspiration for both author J. G. Ballard and the artist Robert Smithson. It was this that provided the focus for Tacita Dean's recent film project JG. In a way, the film is reflective of a sort of aesthetic love triangle. Dean has long been inspired by the work of Smithson and Ballard. In turn, Ballard wrote admiringly of Dean's work (especially her texts). Smithson was an avid reader of science fiction, and was particularly taken with Ballard's work, which proved a huge influence on the artist in the mid-late 1960s. And Ballard was quite taken with Smithson's earthworks, no doubt recognizing that he and Smithson shared similar interests and ideas.

In a write-up of the film at the East of Borneo site, contributor Rachel Valinsky fleetingly references a tertiary text by Ballard titled "Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist." Not having encountered the Ballard piece before, I do a quick scramble to locate it. It's a short piece, only some 7-8 paragraphs long, the last portion of which reads:
"Fifty thousands years from now our descendants will be mystified by the empty swimming pools of an abandoned southern California and Cote d’Azur, lying in the dust like primitive time machines or the altar of some geometry obsessed religion. I see Smithson’s monuments belonging in the same category, artefacts intended to serve as machines that will suddenly switch themselves on and begin to generate a more complex time and space. All his structures seem to be analogues of advanced neurological processes that have yet to articulate themselves.

:Reading Smithson’s vivid writings, I feel he sensed all this. As he stands on the Spiral Jetty he resembles Daedalus inspecting the ground plan of the labyrinth, working out the freight capacity of his cargo terminal, to be measured in the units of a neurological deep time. He seems unsure whether the cargo has been delivered.

"His last flight fits into the myth, though for reasons of his own he chose the wrong runway, meeting the fate intended for his son. But his monuments endure in our minds, the ground plans of heroic psychological edifices that will one day erect themselves and whose shadows we can already see from the corners of our eyes."
It seems the Ballard piece in question has rarely been reprinted, but the full text of it can be read here.

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