“Ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason.” —Robert Smithson
Artists' interest in the aesthetic and symbolic qualities of decaying and decomposing matter has persisted throughout the history of art. Images of ruins—as symbols of natural devastation, the transience of the built environment, and human mortality—first emerged in Renaissance paintings, in which landscapes were often littered with the remnants of Greco-Roman statues and the wounded bodies of martyred Saints draped across classical columns. Representations of deterioration and decay continued through the Romantic period, exemplified by Hubert Robert’s etchings of statuary fragments, and into the 20th century; Nicholas Nixon’s portraits of AIDs victims in the 1980s captured with grotesque realism the physical deterioration of the human body, while Aaron Siskind’s close-up images of weathered and rusted wall reliefs and filmmaker Tacita Dean’s extended shots of fading carpets and rotting fruits explore a fascination with the material qualities of decay. Photographers Michael Eastman, Robert Polidori, and Jin Jiangbo depict contemporary ruins, capturing former industrial spaces or decadent public and private interiors, now worn by years of disuse and neglect.