Decline and Fall
by Brian Dillon
In a work such as Martha Rosler’s 1993 video How Do We Know What Home Looks Like?, the decayed and contested architecture of Modernism appears both outdated and up-for-grabs: a fading Utopian inheritance that barely hangs on to its (then routinely disparaged) potential for collective aspiration. Rosler’s intimate exploration of Le Cobusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Firminy-Vert, in south-central France, showed a dilapidated building that had been in part redecorated by its tenants (as per conservative clichés about the impersonality of high-rise living) with aspirantly bourgeois wallpapers and private souvenirs, but still retained a sense of embattled technological community, typified by the radio station installed on its roof. It was, however, among artists who referred, directly or obliquely, to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc that the theme of ruin flourished in the 1990s and beyond. Tacita Dean’s film Sound Mirrors (1999) broods over the remains of British prewar acoustic early-warning technology that seemed to presage the silos and satellite dishes of the Cold War, while later Berlin-based films such as Fernsehturm (Television Tower, 2001) and Palast (Palace, 2004) more readily reflect on the ageing or half-demolished architecture of the East. That strand of explicitly Ballardian ruin lust has continued, too, in certain works by Jane and Louise Wilson - notably, their treatment of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in the postwar town of Peterlee, UK, in A Free and Anonymous Monument (2003), and their own return to the Atlantic Wall in Sealander (2006) - and in the ambitious project of the Center for Land Use Interpretation to document (among many other types of landscape) the defunct sites and artefacts left behind by the US nuclear weapons and space programmes in the second half of the 20th century.
If such works courted a kind of military-industrial sublime, and risked at their most self-aware a type of nostalgia, it is surely this latter element that has come to the fore, in more or less self-conscious or critical forms, in the last few years. The variously thoroughgoing or superficial archaeology of architectural and artistic Modernism that has exercised so many artists in the last decade is patently, on one level, a discourse on ruins in a Romantic mode. At first glance, the assertion that ‘modernity is our antiquity’ (as one of the guiding rubrics of Documenta 12 had it) allows for a potentially endless poring over the rubble, and the discovery time and again of our melancholy distance from the formal ambition or political charge of the modern. There is a definite pleasure in this, and one not to be merely disparaged, even as group shows dedicated to the ‘modern ruin’ - the title itself has become ubiquitous - proliferate with, given their subject, a somewhat ironic energy. There is a lot to be said for wallowing, after all. But an attitude of mourning, or downright depressive longing, for the lost object of Modernism, is not the avowed aim of much of this work. Rather, so the curatorial language has it, what is called for is a re-animation (or maybe occult conjuring) of the corpse of Modernism - or, better, of the latent and so far unfulfilled life embodied in its ruins. This raises some taxing problems, not least the question of what one does with the fact, neatly adumbrated by Huyssen and Vidler, that the claim to revivify the ruins of the past was itself a stereotypically Modernist one. At every turn - even, or perhaps especially, when it asserts its hostility to mere revivalism - the contemporary ruin gaze is seemingly mired in a revivalist nostalgia.