Catastrophe of ruins
For a few months now recto/verso has investigated the question of ruins. We listened to their whisperings. We observed carefully how they measure time with each grain of dust which clings to them and add another crack in the walls. We listened how they recite events from their past and moments they witnessed. Ruins are victims of time which has passed and due to their resistance to it human can use them as a mediators in perceptions of time and space.
Ruins became visual since the Renaissance painting shift towards the philosophy of humanism. This theme had a much more complex function than that of decorative background: already in 14th century ruins were used as political commentary against feudal authorities. Two murals by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348) The Effects of Good and Bad government (1337-1339) are considered as the first landscapes in the history of art (a conscious representation of the site which has no decorative function but is the subject of the painting itself). These two murals visible in Palazzo Publicco in Sienna show two possibilities of land development depending on the government imposed. In the less optimistic option the landscape under bad stewardship becomes a ruin – the land is not barren, people live in chaos and buildings are showing signs of collapse.
It is impressive how insightful an observation and analysis of systems of power and decision making consequences were covered in these wall-paintings from Quatrocento. The ruin here seems to represents more a disaster and a catastrophe caused by changing human politics.
Ruins in art history represented the passing time and corresponded to specific periods in human history. Still in the Renaissance, when the Cristian culture, going beyond the phantoms of pagan and barbarian traditions, was echoed in numerous painting of the time. Visual narration was build within architectural elements which were powerful enough to summarise the history of European culture, written by a clash of world-views. In his The Punishement of Rebelles (1481-1482), a mural painting in the Sistine Chapel, Sandro Botticelli uses the Arc of Constantine – the emperor who proclaimed Christianity as the official religion – as a central element of the composition. The narration lead from right to left tells the story of the progress and struggles of its followers since the time of Roman Empire. The collapse of this political giant, the catastrophe of the country drowning in chaos was sealed by the rise of Christians.
Also just as the birth of Jesus Christ depicted in annonciations of Francesco di Giorgio Martini or Andre del Sarto is a sign of the coming of a new time, a new era and anew hope. Ruins in the background are signs of old times, old order which is receeding to make a place for a new values and which will irreversibly change the world.
Later on the theme of ruins, especially in manierisme, became a pretext to experiment with compositon. Capricci is the form of painting using ruined builidings to create a mise-en-scene of the anecdotic and humoristic paintings. Like in Leonardo Coccorante’s Capriccio with ruines a classical on the side of Meditarenian see (1720) the remains of noble edifices are sort of a decoration of the trivial sitution in the foreground. The ruin become an aesthetic pattern in itself.
Within the aesthetic of the sublime and the Age of Enlightenment, when nature and humans were perceived as the opposite powers in a constant, uneven fight, ruins emerged to represent catastrophe. Widely developed by Georg Simmel who sees ruins as proof of human activity which, in their vertical position, tend to be flattened by nature. Leonardo Coccorante’s painting Ruins at the Seaside, the effect of the Strom (around 1720-1733) represents ruins as a human destination in the struggle with powers of nature, the catastrophe to come.
The doomsday may be our vision of the future. With remains visible in ruins after all historical events humanity has faced have developed our deepest fears about the time to come and clearly shaped our image of possible future scenarios. If not natural disasters, then human activity and action against others is even more terrifying. One of the most significant global events which shocked not only the political world but also the cultural and visual arts was the First World War, the Great War- a sometimes fratricidal slaughter which lasted four years. Europe took a while to shake off the shock. In visual arts the first reactions to this political events were already present in 1916 among the group of artists gathered in Swiss Cabaret Voltaire held by an emigrant, Hugo Bell. This movement called dada or Dadaism was a protest against the art of the time but also a political statement. Faced with such a catastrophe no other language other than the poetic of absurd could be used. Artist like Tristant Tzara, Hans Arp, Georg Grosz and after Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp started building a new discourse based on the ruins of the world they knew. Among them Kurt Schwitters, artist who created ‘his own’ dada literally used remains of human activity to create artworks in frame of his movement called Merz. Collages and sculptures were composed with objects found in the streets as well as press cuttings, used matches, images from books and magazines or other objects considered rather as trash. This rhetoric seemed to be the only one possible when facing the cathartic events of the time and the redefining of artistic language.
Political involvement in art is a strong decision and a statement which can be done through radical gesture. Two years after reunification of Germany in 1991 this country was represented at the Venice Biennale by Hans Haacke. This conceptual artist, known from his work lying in between arts and politics, underlined this precarious moment in the history of his country. Germania, his work in the German pavilion, was a setting with a difficult past. The viewer was welcomed by a photo of Adolf Hitler visiting the pavilion in 1934, only two weeks before the Night of Long Knives which confirmed his power in Germany. Hitler, not satisfied with the pavilion architecture, ordered modifications in order to use this building for Nazi propaganda. After the War the symbols corresponding to his ideology were removed from a façade but the interior changes remained untouched till the 1990s. Hans Haacke, answering the organisers’ question if he wanted to keep the interior architecture done after Hitler’s decision, decided to use this opportunity to deal with a heavy historical heritage. The visitor face the ruins from the 1930s.
Ruins have become a strong cultural sign, they impose themselves, it is difficult to ignore them. The gesture of their definitive destruction, as it happens in city of Palmyra systematically destroyed by ISIS warriors, touches a place where West met Orient. ISIS, whose basic weapon and tool is to create chaos, tend to excise from the past in order to show a new time, new order coming. Palmyra became literal ruins. There is just a pile of stones and dust left, which we all know is what it is made of.