The inexorable decay of the world around us is predominant in contemporary culture. Urban exploration of decayed architecture, overgrown multi-million pound London homes owned by absent billionaires, adverts for dying grey hair, firming wrinkled skin and lifting sagging boobs. We seem more aware of the aesthetic consequences of duration than ever. And so to RuinLust, guest curated by UK editor of Cabinet magazine, Brian Dillon, exploring the roots of this preoccupation.

We see Piranesi’s late 18th-Century engravings of Rome, classical structures romantically entwined in ivy, ghostly suggestions of former glories. Images such as these found their way to England where they not only suggested destinations for the monied classes grand tours, but also introduced artists to a new approach, bringing light onto the dilapidated architecture of our own past.

In 1830 John Soane commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint his recently completed Bank of England as a ruin; a device not only allowing the viewer a way of exploring Soane’s internal spaces but also suggesting his creation will be read amongst the classic remains of antiquity dotted around Europe. Audacious, but a marker of the growing idea that ruin could inform as much about the current as about the past.

World War II features strongly. The devastation wrought upon the whole country is illustrated up by two Johns; Armstrong and Piper. Armstrong’s post-bombing Coggeshall Church has the feeling of the sudden end to the old, safe order. But in showing the intact structural innards of the tower through an opening formed by collapsed stonework, he suggests the damage is superficial and can be reformed over the inner strength of not only what we have created but who we are. Piper’s painting, also a bombed church, has a balance of form and colour which belies the brutality of the destruction. Closer, however, and the artist’s aggressive, scratch marks can be seen and the visceral trauma at the centre of both physical event and pictorial creation overwhelm the pleasant nature the painting first presented.

This play between the ‘macro’ of aesthetic ruinous sublime and the ‘micro’ of pain and torment is also true of Jane and Louise Wilson’s Biville and Urville, vast photographs of concrete hulks once part of Normandy coast defences now collapsed onto the beach. At first, these appear as abstract sculptures, fitting with too-easy notions of ruin-porn. But give them time and they transform; you imagine the people once inside, events they endured and lives lost. These simple photographs absorb and demand thought.

But in a largely literal and chronological curation, RuinLust often leaves one wondering what else there is beyond a polite artistic rendering. Many contemporary angles are lacking and it remains throughout apolitical and interested in the objective gaze rather than subjective comment. There is nothing here on current global ruins; Chinese and Middle Eastern ghost cities abandoned before completion, Fukushima, post-Katrina New Orleans, Detroit and our own country’s deliberate mismanagement of brutalist architecture which would have brought relevance and charge largely lacking in a polite presentation.

Ruin Lust continues until 18 May

Tate Britain RuinLust official website

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