Seven Counter-clockwise Turns Around Ruin Lust
Have you ever known a place which seemed to have no beginning and no end?
Paul Nash, Monster Field
The first time I walked to Chanctonbury Ring, it was whole. A proud bristle of beech trees sprouting from an Iron Age fort atop the West Sussex downs, Chanctonbury was, at that time, puffed full with branch and root, even in winter. With the Ring only a few miles from my Grandmother’s village, visiting from America meant family trips to stroll its windswept heights and picnic on its druidic mounds.
Meanwhile, I’d be debating: seven times around the Ring – that’s all it took; seven times running counter-clockwise around the Ring – to cast a spell that would summon: what? A Roman legion? A Saxon horde? The Devil himself? The results are multi-mythed, but not well documented.
And then, October, 1987: the great storm decimated Chanctonbury Ring, reducing it from a crown to a wisp. The Ring survived in tatters, like a war-denuded forest: “Poor, poor, Chanctonbury,” my Grandmother said tearfully into the phone. A lifelong friend, lost.
Yet now, from Chanctonbury’s cropped crest, something different sprouts. Not the newly planted beeches – saplings replacing the devastated trees, themselves planted in their famous ring by a local landowner in 1760. Rather, springing anew from the interstitial spaces in the Ring’s tree line are ancient vagaries: mythological denizens, memories, a cultural canopy rooted in a broken view.
Chanctonbury now has a muddled beginning, a broken end.
Upturned trees, flotsam and jetsam, prehistoric standing stones and dowser’s dreams – the photographs taken by artist Paul Nash explain a little of his seaside surrealism, but are perhaps more indicative of a lust for narrative. Nash’s Monster Field and other photos – storm-severed trees and ancient cairns which, to Nash, possessed a creature’s form – aren’t merely inanimate objects in the landscape; they are wilful creatures. They are beings which, obviously, possess a past, no matter how obscured. But more importantly, they are creatures bursting with stilled potential futures.
In Tate Britain’s exhibition, Ruin Lust, we see these futures in the ghostly residue of a collective past. Nash’s photographs sit beside the paintings they inspired and facing the work of John Latham, who suggested a Stonehenge potential for England’s industrial detritus. And they face Paul Graham’s photographs of Troubles-era Northern Ireland – edgelands of prison protest and razor-wire grass – and Keith Arnatt’s photographs of Wye Valley sites replete with modernist picturesque elements: cars and playground equipment misted in Constable clouds.
Stilled potential futures: Arnatt and Graham’s landscapes burst too. Arnatt’s A.O.N.B. photographs, from the early 1980s, are at once post-apocalyptic and vigorous with humanity. A lonely sign for the Anchor Hotel is framed in Arnatt’s shot to include the same northeast corner of Tintern Abbey once sketched by William Gilpin for his manifesto on the picturesque. But here there are no lowly peasants or Cistercian monks haunting the ruins: perhaps some touristy rain dogs or a Brit Willy Loman, wandering forever the border inns, as the radio speaks of Falklands.
The potentiality of Graham’s photographs is darker still, belied by his richly coloured imagery. These salted-earth borderlands between place and no-place imagine the byways around Derry and Belfast like Armando’s “guilty landscapes” – beautiful in their composition, terrible in their meaning. Ruination comes when time is stilled, slowed, accelerated, fucked: Graham’s time is that of ethereal Irish mist clashing with the cinderblock and steel bars of Derry estates and H-block.
Bursting with Pandora potential.
Hadleigh Castle overlooks the Thames estuary near the village of Leigh-on-Sea in Essex – on a clear day and from its vantage, one can see Kentish shores, the Atlantic, London. In John Constable’s gigantic Sketch for “Hadleigh Castle”, we can see the spot where the Crowstone sits, one of several ancient monuments that denote the legal boundaries of the Thames: it is at the Crowstone that, at least in our language, river becomes sea, and, in a way, London begins.
Standing atop Hadleigh Castle today there are other sights. Oil storage facilities and fast trains to Fenchurch Street; busy shipping lanes to Tilbury, containers floating to the megalopolis; Canvey Island’s sunken turf, Basildon’s new-town sprawl and Southend’s fractured city-in-waiting. But Hadleigh Castle stands like a fixed point in this temporal flux. The liminal lands of Essex – neither city nor countryside; river nor sea – swirl around it like Constable’s sun-streaked clouds.
In “Hadleigh Castle” the cloudy ruin-residue of memory seems to billow from Constable’s tiny shepherd. Tucked in the corner of the painting, just arriving on the scene, I imagine him as part of that timeless ruin: an Angelus Novus who can see past his sheep and the swirling gulls to the oil tankers, Tilbury and beyond. All the wreckage of history is lain at his feet and yet, like Hadleigh itself, this pastoral relic continues in his routine, stepping over the railway tracks and the A-road to steer his flock to graze.
The shepherd arises, circles the castle, counter-clockwise.
The “Lust” in Ruin Lust isn’t “lust” in the sense of a bodice-ripper – if it’s sexual at all, this lust is Ballardian, car-crash lust. It’s biblical lust, a feverish melancholic urge to achieve, bodily, that which is forbidden. It is a summoning of wisps of the shared, forgotten memory.
Rachel Whiteread’s images of the demolition of a modernist housing estate are such a summoning: they are car-crash lust, the ruination of placeholders rather than monuments. But through the artist’s summoning, such a destruction – the erasure of a non-memory – can become memorial. If Hadleigh Castle stands as a fixed point in British culture and history, these new ruins are predictive, their ruination built into their DNA. “Compared with all previous history,” says Paul Connerton in How Modernity Forgets, “the life expectancy of people and that of buildings is now reversed”. The future becomes the memory, we become the fixed point, and the viewer and ruin become one.
Such future ruins become most stark, most devastating, and yet most ironically optimistic, in Laura Oldfield Ford’s recent paintings of city estate life. Ford’s estates are palimpsests, graffiti and objects running over in amplified pink, angled and broken like punk picturesque. But even in the unpopulated Ferrier Estate, these are about people: viewers, subjects, the summoning of a ruinous vacuum into which a new world can be born.
Ford’s bedsit women aren’t only watching as the wreckage of history piles at their feet. They’re waiting for the moment to run riot, counter-clockwise.
These objects are the residue. That which cannot be painted, Nash has painted. These aren’t the summoning, they are the summoned. Seaside lumps of bone and Monster Field wood, found crags of rock rendered totemic in surrealist still life. In Swanage, Paul Nash has abandoned the middle step, and shown us the memories themselves.
Myfanwy Evans wrote of Paul Nash that he had “no interest in the past as past, but in the accumulated intenseness of the past as present.” This accumulation was, for Nash, in the stones at Avebury and the green pyramid of Silbury Hill. It was in the fossils and fields of Dorset, the coastal chunks of ship that tides besmirched, and in the desire lines that criss-crossed the countryside. Ruin Lust is a summoning of this accumulation into the present – an intenseness in which the wreckage of history becomes the building blocks of a new life, for better or for worse, seen in the gaps between the stones.
Nash himself once wrote: “Last summer, I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of the avenue of stones which led to the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation.”
The last time I walked to Chanctonbury Ring there was a tree felled in the Wiston woods below, victim of this year’s storms. Its upturned roots looked like a city map – ring roads and tributaries; highways, byways, laybys; political follies, pointless avenues, bridges to nowhere. Its demolition was never captured, but its residue remained: standing, it was part of the forest; lain down by the weather, it became a monument to the passing of time. This wasn’t the first time I walked to Chanctonbury since my grandmother’s death, and this tree fell long after she did. But still its complicated dendrites and gruff pride remind me of her, fixed in time.
Seven circuits of Chanctonbury Ring, counter-clockwise, and one might see the Devil. Or one might see the feverish crunch of the A27, time racing by. Or one might see one’s self, reflected in a dewpond, surrounded by time-lapse clouds.
Justin Hopper is leading a five-week course this March and April entitled Reading Ruins as part of Ruin Lust.
Ruin Lust is at Tate Britain until 18th May 2014.
Image credit: Laura Oldfield Ford, Ferrier Estate, 2010.