Edited by Brian Dillon
White Chapel Gallery/MIT Press, $25.00
Editorialized by way of its arsenal of noteworthy perspectives on architecture, philosophy, film, linguistics, visual art, “geologic time,” and human perception, Ruins contains over 40 essays that address the subject of decay and its aesthetic significance to contemporary culture. Since its genesis in 2006, the Documents of Contemporary Art series has been dedicated to providing diverse insights on particular themes by artists and writers from past and present generations who are curated, in a sense, by a guest editor in each of its publications. This volume, edited by Cabinet magazine’s UK editor Brian Dillon, explores decay aesthetics in a constantly evolving succession of ontological contexts.
A dominant influence on the complex subject of decay emerges in the personae of Walter Benjamin and Robert Smithson. A Benjamin-Smithson duality forms the basis for a hemispheric understanding of what might be summarized as the artistic expression of ruination from the late 18th century to the present. Romantic notions of industry, infrastructure, landscape and monumentality, expressed by supporting voices throughout Ruins, also serve to inform this grand discourse on the aesthetics of decay. At best, many of the entries inspire admiration similar to the effects of good travel writing. But to traverse Ruins, one must transcend environment and the phenomenal world in order to arrive at culture. Benjamin’s and Smithson’s impact on the discourse is perceptible in countless instances. In many ways, similar to the way in which those writers who write on Foucault begin to sound like Foucault (few escape using his hermetic vocabulary), many of the writers included emulate either Benjamin’s insightful, highly aestheticized culturally reflective mannerism, or Smithson’s posture of a postmodern Whitman preoccupied with entropy, pop culture, and a critical conception of art that belongs to Natural History, where the “I” is progressively removed from space and time through the experience of the “reverse ruin” and its relationship to a qualifying material state and an archeological composition.
Dillon’s introduction, entitled “A Short History of Decay,” grounds the discussion of ruins in culturally embedded images of catastrophe and the “contemporary state of ruinous affairs” defined by various states of architectural or political collapse and environmental disaster. There is something both chronological and timeless in the observations making up Ruins:
Ruins embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes. The ruined building is a remnant of, and portal into, the past; its decay is a concrete reminder of the passage of time. And yet by definition it survives, after a fashion: there must be a certain (perhaps indeterminate) amount of a built structure still standing for us to refer to it as a ruin and not merely as a heap of rubble. At the same time, the ruin casts us forward in time; it predicts a future in which our present will slump into similar disrepair or fall victim to some unforeseeable calamity. The ruin, despite its state of decay, somehow outlives us. And the cultural gaze we turn on ruins is a way of loosening ourselves from the grip of punctual chronologies, setting ourselves adrift in time.
Following Dillon’s powerful Introduction, the “confused chronologies” in Ruins are arranged in four distinct categories: “Modernity In Ruins,” “The Military-Industrial Sublime,” “Drosscape,” and “The Future Now.” The artists and writers exhibited include but are not limited to Georg Simmel, George Bataille, Anthony Vidler, Jean Baudrillard, Barbara Clausen, Svetlana Boym, J. G. Ballard, Patrick Keiller, Rebecca Solnit, Jonathan Crary, Tim McDonough and Brian Dillon himself, who has produced two very curious essays toward the end of the book, “An Archaeology of the Air” and “Modernologies.” Modernity, contemporary art, environment, or landscape and the imagined future of ruins further characterize the four milieus in which Dillon’s writers and artists have been grouped.
Essays of the greatest interest juxtapose the Romantic notion of a ruin with a cultural condition or some other abstraction not indicative of an architectural trace or the remainder of a structure in a state of decay. Benjamin, in the very brief “Theses on the Philosophy of History” from 1940, begins to disassociate the object of decay from the environment in which it was originally discovered in his thoughts on historical materialism and barbarism. Derrida, in “Memoirs of the Blind” (1990), explores sub-themes related to physical ruins that deal with memory, narcissism, and an elaboration on Baudelaire’s notion of drawing. Robert Smithson, in “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1967), discovers a relationship between the ruin, film, and the ability to reverse one’s conception of the eternal in terms of the illusion of viewer control or its suspension thereof. Analogy, metaphor, notions of originality and authentication form other conversational tangents or aesthetic mechanisms employed by writers to explain this ephemeral subject. It is the collective authors’ chasing of a definition of ruins that makes this unique volume a fascinating read.
Ultimately, the ruin seems to evade any particular urban or rural zone. It might best be described as a transcendental moment of astonishment with various subjective consequences, all of which result in the acknowledgment of our own mortality, the half-lives of art and architecture, and their shared vanishing points. Dillon’s “Modernologies” (2010) suggests that running parallel to the more experiential facets of the thinking on ruins, there is a deep desire to know what comes after postmodernism. The discourse on ruination has something to say about our inability to fully escape the modernist past, which this curator perceives, in terms of contemporary art, as a haunting. Dillon’s preoccupation with this subject is, in the end, hopeful of an escape of sorts and more than anything is anticipatory of that post-postmodern future.