"Walking along the beach some years ago, I noticed a dark structure emerging from the mist ahead of me," the novelist J.G. Ballard wrote in 2006. "Three storeys high, and larger than a parish church, it was one of the huge blockhouses that formed Hitler's Atlantic Wall ... A flight of steps at its rear led me into the dank interior with its gun platforms and sinister letter box view of the sea. Generations of tramps had dossed here, and in the stairwells were the remains of small fires, piles of ancient excrement and a vague stench of urine."
This stunning piece of travel writing inspired twin YBAs Jane and Louise Wilson to visit the Atlantic Wall in 2006 and photograph the ruined blockhouses or bunkers, built by the Nazis to defend the coastline from France to Denmark and Norway. Their extraordinary images are some of the most poignant and powerful in a new exhibition at Tate Britain, which explores our lust for ruins (from the German ruinenlust) over the past three centuries.
Why do we lust after that which is past? How can the past somehow exist in the present? This is the conundrum of the ruin, which seduced aristocratic tourists on the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century and continues to appear in twitter feeds, captured through the romantic filter of Instagram.
Co-curated by the writer and critic Brian Dillon, this exhibition is conceptual without being cold. From Turner to Tacita Dean, across painting, film, and sculpture, it explores the idea of the ruin of the mind as well as the real human history that underscores these monumental and often beautiful wrecks. It's utterly absorbing and educational.
Urville (2006) is a vast black and white photograph by the Wilsons. It shows a hulking Nazi bunker, seemingly toppled on its side. The bunker looks like a broken Transformer toy - cartoonishly brutalist. Surrounded by sand, there are footprints leading up to or away from the bunker. The sky overhead seems about to break into a storm. There is a sense of violence, held at a distance. It is a spectacular image, bold and tragic.
In one of the most radical elements of his thought and fiction, Ballard saw a link between Nazi brutalist design and the postwar city planning in Britain that contained and controlled the working classes. He wrote: "I realised I was exploring a set of concrete tombs whose dark ghosts haunted the brutalist architecture so popular in Britain in the 50s sprung from the drawing boards of enlightened planners who would never have to live in or near them." Dillon pursues this Ballardian theme with subtlety. Several works explore the ghettoisation of the poorest in London, and the waste of uninhabited urban spaces.
Estate Map (1999) is a large work of acrylic paint and marker pen on an aluminium background by the artist collective Inventory. It shows a damaged and degraded map of the Marquess Rd housing estate in Islington; the letters are eroded and the yellow blocks that signify houses are partly erased. The image is like an abstract painting, and, indeed, this is a living space abstracted out of existence. Across the bottom of the image, the artists have written about the feeling of absence created by the fact that such estates are not included on city maps. They are blanks, their inhabitants both symbolically and actually excluded. This is part of the ideological stranglehold of space that organises any city, and though the ruin was aligned with the picturesque in the 18th century, the issue here is of urban deprivation.
I love Laura Oldfield Ford's large painting TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot Street (2012). It is striking because it shows an interior, domestic space rather than the exterior of a building. The domestic is historically feminine, but this is more riot grrrl than girly. Two women sit on an unmade bed, writing. They are ambushed on all sides by florescent pink paint. Oldfield Ford is influenced by punk, squatting, and rave subcultures, and the painting looks as though it were made in the 80s. Always precarious, this is a scene of creative life under threat.
Joseph Michael Gandy's A Bird's-Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) appears all the more astonishing in light of the political anger of these works. It is a surreal and timely example of how the British establishment has evoked the idea of ruins in order to cement its own power. The large gold-framed watercolour was commissioned by the architect Sir John Soane, who designed the bank, to celebrate his own retirement in 1830. Rather than show the building in pristine condition, Soane asked Gandy to imagine it in a state of decay. The cutaway perspective allows you to see the interior of the building, evoking the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome.
The painting itself is whimsical, nostalgic, lightly Romantic. The pale sandy palette and shafts of blue light falling from the left are Turneresque. Far from the busyness of central London, the bank is surrounded by an exposed red cliff face and a fallen classical statue. The suggestion is that civilisation may fall, but the bank will remain. It belongs to the grace of things past, not present. It is an instance of how art has served the elites through the centuries.
Ruin Lust: Tate Britain, London, to May 18