Two complimentary exhibitions at Tate Britain, the first is “RuinLust”, the artistic portrayal of ruins from the time that they became picturesque in the 18th century. The second is Phyllida Barlow’s massive installation which fills the whole of the classical Duveen galleries. It is a measure of how disappointing the exhibition is that the installation becomes the highlight of a visit to the Tate. The subject of ruins is a good one, and draws on much of the art that is hidden within the Tate’s collections. Humans have a fascination with decay, whether caused by nature or my war, and this was evidenced at the most extreme when 18th century garden designers created new ruins as high-spots in their landscaped compositions. The exhibition cleverly tries to link through from the 17th century to modern times. However it misses a couple of opportunities. The main one is that it is too tame, too polite, too picturesque. The exhibition includes photographs of the results of war, but here is an opportunity to say something more political, more challenging. The other is that there are obvious sculptural works that are missing – sculpture by Rachel Whiteread or by Jake and Dinos Chapman Brothers would add some drama that the exhibition needs.
Laura Cumming writing in the Guardian says “We make our own ruins, over and over. Nobody seeing Tacita Dean’s photograph of the Crimea going up in smoke will be able to escape the agonising premonition of history repeating itself. Nobody who sees Gerard Byrne‘s photographs of objects and people, taken only very recently yet appearing quite obsolete, can fail to be struck by the way the past haunts the present.”
Phyllida Barlow’s installation is her largest work to date and works well with the exhibition. It is massive, filling the huge Duveen galleries that are the central axis of the Tate. The visitor is left a little uncertain of what it all means and imagination runs wild. Does it represent the flotsam and driftwood that is left along the beaches of the Thames or is it the aftermath of a disaster, perhaps a flood or a tornado that blew the doors of the Tate open and deposited all this here? The artist comments “Having seen the space evolve over several decades, I’m very excited by the opportunity to work in the Duveen Galleries. Considering a body of new work, I was very conscious of two particular contradictory aspects: the tomb-like interior galleries against the ever-present aspect of the river beyond.”