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Diving Into The History Of The World's Obsession With 'Ruin Porn'

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The term "ruin porn" has become ubiquitous on social media, blogs and Reddit subgroups everywhere, denoting amateur and professional photographs that capture the built-environment in decline. The two words so easily hashtagged have incited awe and anguish from both admirers who enjoy living vicariously through the lens of daring adventurers and critics who lament the fetishization of economic downturns in cities like Detroit, Michigan.

We could speculate for days as to why the people of the internet -- not just urban explorers -- are drawn to the abandoned beauty of decay. "The voyeurism [of ruin porn] isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death," Kyla Chayka surmised on Hyperallergic. "Ruins don’t make you think of the past, they direct you toward the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like," Mark Binelli of The New York Times mused.

Moran, Texas (via busydane on reddit)


But perhaps The Atlantic's Joann Greco is the most concise: "Pursuing and photographing the old is an addictive hobby." To put it simply, humans have been seeking out and documenting ruins since Renaissance-era painters began memorializing the remains of antiquity. Proof: Tate Britain's exhibition "Ruin Lust," an overview of art history's torrid love affair with picturesque destruction.

The exhibition begins a little later than the Renaissance -- in the 17th century, to be exact -- featuring works from artists like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, painters who trekked throughout Britain looking for decay to render. Running through Gustav Dore's illustrations, Paul Nash's surreal landscapes and Rachel Whiteread's contemporary visions, the collected works give a visual history of art's abstract and disjointed interpretation of the tradition of urban exploration. It veers from the decay of architecture, to the death of Kodak film or the publishing industry, encapsulating all things memento mori.

constable

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, c.1828-9 (via Wikimedia)


While the works of art are a far cry from the filtered imagery that fills your Instagram feeds, the academic curation of yesteryear's ruin porn sheds light on a theme that connects your computer screen with museum walls -- humanity's deep desire to connect with the past. You might not be able to reconcile the effect that a fetish for contemporary decay has on cities trying to survive, but the exhibition proves that insatiable ruin lust has a storied past.

Check out a preview of the exhibition for a mini tour through the ages of ruin porn below:

  • 1654
    Henry Gibbs, Aeneas and his Family Fleeing Burning Troy 1654, Tate
  • 1794
    J. M. W. Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window, 1794
  • 1830
    Joseph Gandy, Aerial cutaway view of the Bank of England from the south-east 1830 Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum, London
  • 1872
    Gustav Dore, The New Zealander in London; A pilgrimage 1872, University Art Museum, University College London
  • 1933
    James Boswell, The Fall of London: Museum 1933, Tate
  • 1935
    Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths 1935, Tate
  • 1940
    Graham Sutherland, Devastation, 1940: A House on the Welsh Border 1940, Tate
  • 1976
    John Latham, Five Sisters Bing 1976, Tate © The Estate of John Latham
  • 1995
    Rachel Whiteread, Clapton Park Estate, Mandeville Street, London E5; Bakewell Court; Repton Court; March 1995 Tate
  • 2006
    Tacita Dean, Kodak 2006, Tate © Tacita Dean
  • 2010
    Laura Oldfield Ford, Ferrier Estate 2010, Tate © Laura Oldfield Ford


"Ruin Lust" will be on view from March 4 to May 18, 2014 at Tate Britain.

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