The Art of Urban Destruction

Turns out taking Instagram-worthy photos of old, broken buildings is an ancient art, the likes of which is being celebrated at the Tate Britain’s new show ‘Ruin Lust.’

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If you talk to people in Detroit, you’ll find they are fed up with “ruin porn” and sick of the disaster tourists who stalk their neighborhoods looking for crumbling images of a once-thriving city.

It’s unlikely to improve their mood, but academics claim they can trace those prying eyes back through hundreds of years of art, photography and literature. Renaissance painters captured the fall of Rome, etchings from the 1700s focused on decaying buildings and artists throughout the 20th century returned over and over again to the same motifs and styles.

Brian Dillon, author of the book Ruins, said the modern images of old Olympic parks, disused hotels and deserted tower blocks were often almost identical to their classical forebears, with new juxtaposed next to old or nature intruding into a man-made structure. “Not a week goes by that MailOnline doesn’t show us photographs of abandoned houses, abandoned cities and so on”, he said. “One of the interesting things is how those images, even if they are made by total amateurs, very often draw on artistic history. The Gothicism, or the picturesque or a sense of melancholia, all of that is there.”

Even if they don’t know it, amateur and professional photographers like the French duo Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have been apeing the style of artists like William Gilpin, who painted Welsh ruins in the 1790s, or JMW Turner whose watercolors captured both contemporary and classical ruins. These works are among the generations of destruction art collected in Tate Britain’s latest thought-provoking show, “Ruin Lust.”

Dillon, one of the show’s curators, said the idea of documenting ruins was seen as rather passé centuries ago. “In the 18th century—ruins were already a kind of cliché, there were popular parodies of Gilpin for instance,” he said. Indeed, the 19th century music hall performer Marie Lloyd dedicated one of her bawdy songs to skewering the fetishization of the decrepit:

I’m very, very fond of ruins, ruins I love to scan You’d say I’m very fond of ruins if you saw my old man

So if the notion of ruins lust has been mocked for centuries, why are we still at it?

Emma Chambers, the Tate’s curator of Modern British Art, said depictions of these faded buildings offer a unique perspective on the passage of time. “I think it’s a way of us thinking through time,” she said. “You can think about both past and future with the ruin, that’s really engaging for artists.”

She pointed towards a 1940 painting by John Piper that captured the crooked remnants of a church in southern England, which had been damaged in Second World War bombing raids. “Although this was a moment of national crisis, artists are still thinking about the aesthetics of what they are representing,” she said. “There’s an impulse to think about how these buildings are aesthetically pleasing but also to enable future generations to think about how society has changed at the point these ruins are created. You can say look at these beautiful textures but also let’s use this as a way of thinking through social change.”

Most of the modern artworks in the show focus on urban decay, with images of bleak social housing or collapsing infrastructure. The most recent come from Iraq, where the photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin recorded the inside of the Red House, the former headquarters of Saddam Hussein, which were later used as a notorious jail. Their images capture the graffiti and surprisingly beautiful drawings etched onto the walls by prisoners.

The show has been accused of peddling the kind of tawdry sentiment that has driven the inhabitants of Detroit to distraction. “The term ‘ruin porn’ keeps getting flung at us,” said Dillon. “But pornography wants one response, right? And actually I think the artistic response we’re looking at is a lot more complicated than simply a kind of prurient, disreputable gaze. Of course, there is a kind of prurience, there’s a kind of perversion alongside the more aesthetisized and picturesque, but we don’t want from artists only a virtuous representation of our virtuous actions.”

Ruin Lust is at Tate Britain in London until May 18.