One of the stranger thoughts that popped into my mind when I was responsible for a large, historic, Grade-1 listed parish church, and we were struggling to find the funds to repair and restore it, was this: ‘more people would love this place, visit it, find it fascinating and attractive, if it were a ruin’.
In idle moments I used to imagine it ruined. I would speculate as to which bits would be left standing, how much tower would there be, whether the stone pavement of the floor would remain. Would any woodwork survive?
Visiting Ennis in the west of Ireland I encountered a ruined church of the same scale and date as the one I was struggling to save and restore. It was a well-looked-after ruin. And so it lacked one aspect of a truly charming ruin – evidence that nature is claiming back the space and materials as lichens grow, stone crumbles to sand, and ivy and other creepers use the ancient monument as a convenient trellis.
These thoughts were rekindled as I visited the ‘Ruin Lust’ exhibition at Tate Britain http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ruin-lust and realised that what I imagined for my ruined church was something like this: Turner’s ‘Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey’.
But not all ruination issues in such pleasing symbiosis. Some ruins reveal the bleakness of plans and projects that have not created the once-imagined future. Such ruins testify to hubris and awaken either discomfort or a sense of superiority, depending on how much we identify with the architects of the unlasting which hasn’t yet fully decayed. They are icons of disappointment.
Apparently, there is huge on-line interest in such ruins; especially when they show the end of opulence. The phrase ‘ruin porn’ refers to the disengaged enjoyment of images of such ruins. It is intended to expose the moral paucity of the observer who delights in the images, and the feelings they engender, without any concern about the human lives and plans whose sadness the physical ruins all too silently enshrine.
Here’s an example.
Look at it.
And then think ‘Chernobyl’ – and look at it again.
Walking as I often do in the north Pennines it is not unusual to come across ruins, not only of say, lead mines, but of whole settlements and communities. It’s hard to imagine industrial bustle and busyness in places where the curlew’s call adds a plaintive isolation to the wilderness, suggesting that humanity has always been largely absent, and is always ultimately overpowered.
Ruins fascinate and delight us, but we are right to question the part of us that is delighted. What’s going on here? Is it nostalgia for a past we have never known? Or is it that we fancy that ruins carry a charm which will bear us into a better future? Are ruins perhaps relics for a secular age?
In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Brian Dillon concludes his wonderful opening paragraph with this sentence. ‘We ask a great deal of ruins, and divine a lot of sense from their silence’. Indeed we do. But what if they could speak to us, what would they say?