KAI 10 | Arthena Foundation, Düsseldorf: June 23, 2017 to October 1, 2017
KINDL – Center for Contemporary Art, Berlin: October 22, 2017 to February 11, 2018
Curators of the exhibition: Julia Höner & Ludwig Seyfarth
Dorothee Albrecht, Morehshin Allahyari, Francis Alÿs, Katya Gardea Browne, Clemens Botho Goldbach, Arata Isozaki, Gordon Matta-Clark, Ryuji Miyamoto, Manit Sriwanichpoom
Our globalized era can be characterized as an age of ruins, because they surround us everywhere. The exhibition Contemporary Ruins examines the always-fascinating aesthetic potential of ruins, on the one hand, as well as their political and economic causes and implications, on the other. The process traces a historical development, moving from the traditional idealization of ruins as a source of contemplative meditation on a distant past to an interpretation of ruins more in step with present times, which questions their creation and current significance in detail.
That ruins today need to be “decoded” differently than they were through classic observation, has been exemplarily pointed out by the art and architecture historian Robert Harbison in his book, The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable (1993): “It isn’t usual to classify ruins, like deaths, according to how they occur, as convulsive or gradual, though perhaps if one’s dead remained above ground one would come to a different view of that too. Very seldom do we know how a building fell into ruin, and assume it is a single, repeated process. One may be surprised to observe that the ragged edge left on a large apartment block by a gas explosion is picturesque, or to enjoy a visit to a village unpeopled by an earthquake. In these the emptiness came all at once, which usually accumulates over years.” The diversity of today’s ruins and their specific cultural resonance comprise the exhibition’s theme.
Once, ruins were the epitome of the past. They symbolized a cycle in which nature ultimately reclaims everything humankind has wrung from it. The melancholic concept of Ruinenlust, or “ruin lust,” which is mostly nurtured by clichés, forms the historical background that continues to influence the ways in which we view ruins and bestow meaning upon them.
In contrast to the ruin as a symbol of the past, of temporality, is the concept of ruins as a projection of the future: for instance, when the design of monumental buildings takes into consideration how they will look after they have been destroyed. In Albert Speer’s ideologically doubtful theory of the value of ruins, for example, destruction is regarded as a kind of liberation. Even Le Corbusier, the ultimate icon of modernist building, propagated the destruction of aging urban structures in favor of his vision of a future-oriented, modern city.
The ruins left in the wake of World War II, or of today’s wars in Aleppo and other Syrian cities are also witnesses to political eras. The destruction of what was left of the ancient oasis-city of Palmyra, for instance, is synonymous for the cultural repression and vandalism of the so-called Islamic State. Architectural ruins in Southeast Asia testify to political and economic crises. Due to the sudden collapse of entire economies in Asia in the late 1990s, many buildings that were under construction remain unfinished.
The landscape as a ruin is also brought into focus, since relics of the expansive modern era, such as coal pits, ravaged oil fields, or charred forests, have become synonymous with failed modernist ideals: technological progress and development do not occur without negative effects, and often make the ruined areas look like post-apocalyptic landscapes.