Bryony: —‘I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?’

James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922

Your statement of re-enactments that re-position themselves within the live as new and potential acts made me re-consider Brian Dillon’s tour of Ruin Lust  that I attended at Tate Britain last week.[1] It is worth stating that I have always found something of performance in the ruin. That is, ruins, located in both the literary and artistic imagination, strike me as acts, gestures; bodies that speak out, imbued with a certain sense of magic that holds narratives, unfolding in time and through space. There is also something of the ruin, and specifically the artist’s engagement with the ruin that attends to a consideration of the re-enactment that we have spoken of through our conversations.

One has to only begin by looking at John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum [figure 1], which stands in the first room of the Tate Britain exhibition to understand a relationship between the ruin and theatricality. The painting is a galling, emblazoned stage set of destruction, which speaks, or screams, of spectacular suffering, where in the foreground of the painting, citizens look on, bearing witness in horror at the destruction of their city.

Fig 1.[2]

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854


Moving from The Destruction to Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville (2006), [Figure 2] Dillon spoke of locating the ‘moment’ or ‘presence’ of the ruin in the Wilsons’s work. The large, monolithic print depicts a black and white photograph of part of the Nazi defence wall along the French coast. It exudes both a sense of historical importance; its monumentality of ‘being there’, whilst also maintaining a sense of mystery ensconced within this concrete, demanding structure. The reverence the ruin gains from being framed within this photograph imposes its status, and the Wilsons’s print also serves to pinpoint the ‘moment’ of their photographic engagement with this work.

Fig. 2[3]

Azeville 2006 by Louise Wilson and Jane Wilson born 1967, born 1967


There is something in Dillon’s discussion of pinpointing the moment, or the presence of the ruin that speaks to the typical and historically significant conversations we hear of performance art, live art and body art. I think here to the work that has been undertaken in the field of performance studies by critics, writers and curators such as Adrian Heathfield, Amelia Jones, Peggy Phelan and Rebecca Schneider (to name but a few) who explore at length the discourses surrounding the presence, or liveness of the artist in performance, and the ‘being there’ of the audience in relation to the moment or act of the live. In light of this, I wish to pose the question; with each new action or encounter with these ruins, how does this presence or liveness of the ruin endure and persist through time?

One such answer might be that we locate the moment of the ruin in the future, or perhaps, the future anterior as Dillon suggests; a future that circumvents a potential point in the soon-to-come. Tacita Dean’s work is symptomatic of this future anterior according to Dillon; the ruins of Dean’s work pointing to a future which is always just a bit beyond us.[4] Consider Kodak, a 16mm film filmed at the Kodak factory in France, filmed using ‘some of the last monochrome standard 16mm film stock the company produced.’[5] [Figure 3] The film explores a medium, through a medium, which was once considered technologically advanced, new and contemporary, but which, in March 2014 is now approaching obsolescence. The film explores a medium in ruin, yet the film also stretches and preserves this medium, by using the medium itself, into the future, a future yet-to-come.

Fig 3[6]


Kodak 2006 by Tacita Dean born 1965


Using Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins, Dillon suggests that there are always ‘new ruins’; seemingly decrepit forms that will continue to be discovered and toyed with in and through the future. That is, the presence or the moment of the ruin continues on, becoming new for the next person who may chance upon it. The ruin then, if it exists through a flow of time, is both part of the past, well within the present whilst also projecting into an unknown future. Yet, it is with each encounter, with each touch, each click of a lens, that these ruins become new, different and fresh once again. That is, ruins continue in, as and through duration and perhaps it is our encounters, all at once touristic, artistic and accidental that afford ruins their performative ‘presence’ or liveness through time. I suggest then that this continuing on, this presence of the ruin in both the past and future suggests that ruins exist in and as multiple times; the ruin’s liveness is always co-existing with other times, moments and encounters with these ruins, both from times past and in potential times to come.

To further probe this, I wish at the conclusion to take up, in order to leave open, Rebecca Schneider’s ‘durational live’ in relation to ruins. In her conclusion to Performing Remains, Rebecca Schneider considers the work of artists such as Mary Kelly whose performance work has explored recreating feminist protest actions. Schneider discerns that the live event can never quite be the originary event; that is, the record or document is not always that which succeeds the live moment and performance doesn’t just disappear and we aren’t just left with a slightly dog-eared, black and white photograph pointing to this mythic event. In a slight to Phelan, Schneider asks; ‘is a “maniacally charged present not punctuated by, syncopated with, indeed charged by other moments, other times? That is, is the present really so temporally straightforward or pure – devoid of a basic delay or deferral if not multiplicity and flexibility?’[7] As such, Schneider poses an important question for both performance, as well as for my consideration of ruins. Is not the ‘presence’, or perhaps the ‘liveness’ of a ruin not interspersed with other energies, references and moments?

In her conclusion, Schneider comes to a consideration of the ‘durational live’ which works to undo the assumption that ‘the evidence of the past [is] evidence of time gone by.’[8] To stand in a gallery then and to encounter a ruin, both real or imaginative, a shell of a home, or the crumbling stone of a once-was monument, or to stand ‘in the flesh’ and photograph it, draw it, or write about it, becomes testament to the ruin’s ability to exist through multiplies durations. Looking at Turner’s Tintern Abbey, [figure 4] the painting captures an encounter with this ruin at a specific moment in time. However, the painting also captures small figures similarly encountering the ruin. So too does Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey capture an encounter and similarly as I speak to my grandmother on a Sunday evening do we re-remember the times we visited Tintern Abbey and our own encounters with this ruin. All of these encounters with Tintern Abbey harp back, exist, record and persist through the past and into the future ; the presence of the ruin no longer one single, livid flame but a host, a multiple of burning flames, in a continual durational live.

Fig 4.[9]

Tintern Abbey: The Transept circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851


This post is a response to 28/03

Read Jacoba’s response here

[1] Brian Dillon, Curator’s Tour of Ruin Lust, Tate Britain, 28/03/2014 (http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ruin-lust) accessed 01/04/2014

[2] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-destruction-of-pompei-and-herculaneum-n00793 [accessed 03/04/14]

[3] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wilson-wilson-azeville-p80083 [accessed 03/04/14]

[4]Brian Dillon, Curator’s Tour of Ruin Lust, Tate Britain, 28/03/2014 (http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ruin-lust) accessed 01/04/2014

[5] Exhibition Hand-out, Tate, March 2014

[6] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dean-kodak-t12407 [Accessed 03/04/14]

[7] Rebecca Schneider, ‘In the meantime: performance remains’, in Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Re-enactment (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), pp. 87-111, p. 92

[8] Rebecca Schneider, ‘And back – afterword’, in Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Re-enactment (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), pp. 169-187, p. 177

[9] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-tintern-abbey-the-transept-tw0370 [accessed 03/04/14]

2 thoughts on “03/04/14

  1. Pingback: 28/03/14 | Felt Acts

  2. Pingback: 23/06/14 | Felt Acts

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