Modern Ruin: The Future is Already Here

By Grant Gee

tate-modern-chris-cornish.jpg Tate Modern, 2003

A beautiful collection but a tautology from the start.

“Ruination is the shadow of progress and utopian thinking.” (from the catalogue)

More than that. The modern is ruin. Each footstep towards utopia leaving ruins like worm casts behind. Faust to Mao.

A beautiful collection but all too successful, opening up with two little words: Modern. Ruins. – cracks through which pours…..just about everything that defines (defined?) the modern predicament.

Orpheus’ gaze and Piranesi and Dore, Sir John Soane, Roger Fenton, George Simmel and The Hindenberg, Finnegan’s Wake and the burning of the Crystal Palace, 9/11 and Germany Year Zero, CGI Armageddon and Le Corbusier, ‘maisons tropicales’ in the Congo, Bauhaus in Tel Aviv, Beckett and Barbara Hepworth, The Red Desert, Brasilia, Welles and Kafka, Stalker and the Manchester of Unknown Pleasures, Ballard, Benjamin, Marx, God and Albert Speer… and what we’ve done to the atmosphere…

It gets hard to think of much you could exclude.

A beautiful collection and the trouble with ruins: the blissful aesthetics of the things. Makes us opiate, camera toting, Ballard-infected, Angels of History: blasted, backs to the future, snapping and scanning the ever growing mountains of debris at our feet, dopey grins on our faces.

doomed-tracey-moffatt.jpgDoomed, 2007

Maybe it’s best just to keep the blinkers on and state, po-faced, that, “the unprecedented scale of disasters and war in the modern period created an abundance of physical and philosophical ruins.” (from the catalogue)

Maybe it’s best to see this exhibition more simply as another verse in the song Goodbye 20th Century. Whatever, two pieces seem to carry the tune particularly well: Joseph Gandy’s 1798 watercolour from Soane’s collection, The Bank of England, London: View of the Rotunda Imagined as a Ruin, and Bill Morrison’s Decasia, which, as time goes by (it was completed in 2001) seems, in its dark psychedelia, its procession of spectres shadow boxing with chemistry, really to have nailed ‘The End’: the physical decay of the utopian, essential, Modern art. The alternative Histoire(s) du cinema.

A beautiful exhibition though a tautology from the start and an unasked question at the end. If The Modern is over, is it ever possible to speak of postmodern ruins? And if it’s not, then what on earth is all this junk at our feet?

Modern Ruin, an exhibition and screening programme, showed at Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane from 12 July – 12 October 2008. The catalogue is available for purchase online.

Grant Gee is a filmmaker. His latest work, Joy Division, won Best Documentary prize at the Grierson Awards 2008. He is developing a feature with Jeff Noon and an essay film inspired by WG Sebald.