From iconoclasm to ruins

All paintings by the author
ALEXANDER ADAMS surveys the story of deliberate destruction

We are familiar with the folly and – from the Baroque period onward – the purposefully constructed ruin used to enhance the pathos of a place, most especially a view of a country estate. This would be a view that could be controlled, protected and secluded, reserved for the delectation of initiates, guests, devotees and – crudely – the owners of the land. For if wildness can be fabricated as easily as order, then ersatz history can also be generated to meet the expectations of the cultivated observer. The frisson of melancholy, the stimulation of imagination and the contentment of viewing destruction from a position of comfort are experiences the ruin can provide. Whether or not that ruin is ‘real’ is a matter of degree. After all, a building as a habitable residence and as a blasted ruin are separated by less than a human lifespan and can be produced through merely absence of funds or care. It can be cultivated by purposeful neglect as well as it can be forged by purposeful intent.  

Ruins as an aesthetic

The Romantic relic is generated through defacement plus time, one encountered in a time of tranquillity by a traveller, for it is the curious traveller or pilgrim who fully sees the artefacts in a way that inhabitants of the region cannot. Consider Piranesi’s views of Rome. Among the ruins – greatly enlarged by the artist – the Romans of the day continue their quotidian lives heedless of the grandeur their squalid lives animate. They cannibalise palaces and bath houses to build their meagre abodes. These Romans are portrayed in a way to contrast them with the nobility, purpose and polity of their Roman ancestors. Where the elder Romans were capable of epic achievements unmatched, the latter-day Romans can only rob and scavenge their ancestors’ ruins. Thus, the Romans of Piranesi’s day were little better than parasites or termites eroding their habitat to eek out their paltry existences. In Piranesi’s Rome, Man (brought low from his high estate) is no more or less than a mean function of Nature, like wind, rain or the roots of plants, destined to topple even the sturdiest of towers. Piranesi’s Romans are little different from animals which graze under the pinnacles of an abandoned cathedral spire. It is surely their very indifference which makes them animals; it is the traveller, pilgrim and connoisseur (one who can afford and appreciate the prints of an artist such as Piranesi) who is the moral being because he responds to art and comprehends history, thus elevating himself above the animals of the field and wood.

Note that tranquillity is prerequisite for the appreciation of nature and the ruin. Not only is measured contemplation in a time turbulence or movement impossible, but for a ruin to have stately gravity, erosion must be halted (or slowed) to a state where it is not perceptible to the mortal. For a ruin to have a timeless quality, time cannot be seen to be changing its subject visibly in “human time”. A sand castle being washed away by the waves is not noble. However, if the castle were large enough (or, conversely, the spectator small enough) and the waves slowed to a nearly imperceptible speed, then nobility would be achieved. Bears fighting is awe-inspiring; sparrows fighting is comic. Again, if those sparrows were large enough and fought more slowly, then they would inspire awe. The essential material conditions of sand castles and sparrows do not preclude grandeur; it is the framing of these beings that determines their emotional impact upon the viewer. It is our perception – not our comprehension or the material attributes of that which we contemplate – which imbues a subject with emotional weight and determines the amount of significance we attribute to it.

What separates the Romantic ruin from evidence of atrocity? How does shock and anger shade into estimable melancholy and detached contemplation? Time is surely one factor. When I painted the ruins of Berlin photographed in 1945, I was fascinated by their visual correlation to ruined abbeys and castles and yet the historical immediacy impinged upon my understanding of them. Captured photographically in 1945, they were too raw, too fresh, too soused in newly spilled blood to be Romantic. Did, I wondered, my translations of these images into paint take away their sting? When I painted from photographs of battlefields, I was unsure as to whether I was just playing in the mud of Flanders, turning soil, fetid water and shattered tree trunks into brush strokes that were dainty and earnest, slashed with élan or arbitrarily revised. Who was to say that I was not more selfish, cavalier and flippant than any Georgian poet or Victorian historian, considering my (comparably) much greater appreciation of the atrocities connected to these battle fields compared to any comprehension they might have had about the subjects of their contemplation?

Ignorance numbs. To the uninitiated, the crofters’ cottages of the Scottish Highlands have a tragic timelessness. Yet once one understands that crofters were sometimes forcibly evicted from their inherited homesteads, these buildings seem more a marker of political and socio-economic forces than simple tides of time. Lady Butler could take as her subject the Irish crofter departing her home for the final time as a contemporary subject, pointed in its political commentary. Over one century later, her painting and the ruined cottage carry emotional charges, if one has the basic information that allows the subject to become legible. The information needs to be recorded and imparted through conscious will.

Sometimes the landscape remembers for us. In dry summers, when water demand is high, the levels of a reservoir in mountainous North Wales sink low and, for a few days, the ruins of the village of Capel Celyn are revealed. The stone walls of houses and chapels are upright and dry under the hot sun, standing over pools of drying mud. Former residents can see the lost streets of their home village, lost when the valley was flooded in 1965 to provide the expanding thirsty conurbations of north-east England with potable water. Disgruntled Welsh nationalists paint anti-English slogans on the walls in white paint. No one paints on the slag heaps of the Rhondda Valley despoiled by miners; instead, their artificial outlines are abraded by foliage and erosion.

Sometimes we ourselves become ghosts – walking ruins. When a Cockney visits the back streets of Stepney to be surrounded by Bangladeshis and Somalis, is he any different from a Canarse Indian viewing the first palisades of Fort Amsterdam erected on the tip of Manhattan island? It is the visitor returning to his homeland who is the relic, the last fragment of the past washed up on a shore made newly unfamiliar. It is he who is out of time, like the Flying Dutchman drifting the oceans. He is the ruin, looked at by native eyes as a curiosity of history, a temporal aberration. In time, his mortal remains will mimic the ruin. His bones will imitate the exposed beams and the vacant eye sockets of his skull will be the glassless windows of the abandoned house. 

Decay is demonstrative of the passage of time. Time is difficult to measure visually, especially in a momentary encounter or a static record (a work of art or photograph), so visual evidence of decay – staining, erosion, cracking, weathering, lichen – forms the tangible mark of the passage of time. As for statues, we incorporate insults into their meaning. The hammer marks of statue defilers become the patina of our antiquities, absorbed into the meaning of the statue read backwards. A form of teleology, if you like. The statue was made to be defiled, lost, unearthed, traded and placed in an art museum for our momentary diversion. Art + time = pathos.

Buildings as their own memorials

This idea of decay spawning pathos is connected to the idea of a building as its own memorial. The building’s full potential is only realised in its ravaged, ruined form, when it can symbolise of the loss of a civilisation, religion or people. Only once it has served its first stage of utility can it enter its second stage of utility – as a former building.

When Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler discussed the grand architectural projects of the Third Reich, they referred to their projected buildings’ afterlife as ruins. Strange as it may seem for a regime which expressed a desire to last a thousand years (matching that of Rome), the planners of the regime had half an eye on the debris of their country as a failed civilisation, which was to manifest itself as ruins at which travellers would marvel. Thus, one component of the functionality of Nazi-created boulevards, memorials, triumphal arches, concert halls and ministries was to awe not only the inhabitants of Germania (as Berlin was to be called) but the inhabitants of the former Germania. For Speer and Hitler, the glories of Rome and Greece were a template for imperial greatness and architectural perfection. It therefore follows that for Nazi Germania to be the salutary example of cultural achievement it was intended to be, it had to be encountered in a defeated, fragmentary and partially erased by the people who would replace the German titans of old. The wonder and melancholy produced in contemplation of the ruin was a suitable spur to dreaming heroic figures of later ages who would strive to emulate their lost ancestors. A sensation of loss, temporal distance and incomplete comprehension were integral to the Romantic response to the ruin and for the architects of Nazi Germany.

It was this aspect that Anselm Kiefer admitted in his richly patinated giant paintings of Nazi buildings brought to ruin. The irony was that by the time Kiefer began his paintings in the late 1970s, the Nazi buildings had to be ruined in his imagination because the more significant Nazi buildings – especially the Neue Reichskanzlei – had been utterly erased. Kiefer had to consult publicity photographs of the buildings in pristine condition before he could summon the apocalyptic aftermath in his imagination. Generally, nothing so ambiguous or evocative as a state of ruin is permitted to Nazi buildings. They are either in use or completely erased. Exceptions are: coastal defences (abandoned, unusable and on liminal land), the Berlin and Vienna Flakturm (hugely expensive to dismantle) and the concentration and death camps (in a state of suspended animation, semi-preserved as historical reminders).     

Not one trace

Modern iconoclasts have no intention of allowing anything as material as ruins to survive. They call for the destruction of material they deem offensive, to be marked by open space or replaced with new icons of the religion of social justice. The warriors of social justice take an old-fashioned absolutist view of cultural material. Produced by the exploitation of ‘black bodies’, facilitated by ‘white colonialism’, set in service of Christianisation of foreign lands, the relics of the past are infused with the toxins of social injustice at an atomic level. The utterly unparalleled evil of white, European, colonialist, Christian, patriarchal systems of barbarism which sustained society and produced its monuments transferred its evil to the very matter of its manifestation.

The statue must be toppled, the plinth must be dismantled, the plaque must be removed, the street name must be erased, the books recording the subject’s deeds must be deaccessioned from every public library. Once the subject is eradicated, his ghost can take any form his detractors wish, unimpeded by material evidence. Just as the graves of holy men were opened during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to allow the smashing of bones, so today’s iconoclasts pursue their own forms of ritual shaming. Not only was the Bristol statue of Edward Colston toppled and submerged in June 2020, stained glass windows dedicated to him were dismantled, his name was removed from the concert hall and from the school founded in his name. The society commemorating his beneficence was dissolved. He was unpersoned during an orgy of revisionist righteousness, designed to allow Bristolians to forget, to rest easy now their historical debt had been paid.  

Perhaps these new zealots intuit from their atavistic instincts that when material remains exist they can accrue mystery, significance and power in the minds of men. Colston’s statue may be permitted to live on in a museum, but only in its damaged state, to be surrounded by demeaning contextualisation intended to perpetuate the public humiliation. It is a trophy. Perhaps in future, no evidence of the supposed miscreants of history will remain except as trophies in displays intended to subvert lasting glory into endless infamy in stocks of the public space. Damnatio memoriae, as the Romans would have recognised. There will be no ruins to linger among and no fallen colossi to contemplate. Will the masked rioters of Europe mimic the masked iconoclasts of ISIS in Nineveh by reducing statues to stones, stones to pebbles, stopping only when the no trace of the subject remains identifiable?

The fury of today’s destroyers comes from the fact that the sins they condemn (colonialism, racism, capitalism, ecological exploitation) are diffused into every particle of their life. Pennies that flow through their bank accounts are residues of slavery. Houses they live in contain bricks made by the exploited. In their pockets, they have iPhones with components of cobalt and cadmium, mined by slaves in Africa. Their clothes are made in conditions they themselves have called ‘sweatshop’. Their pension providers invest in tobacco, munitions, genetically modified crops, oil drilling, polluting airlines, ‘big pharma’ and all manner of enterprises which have yet to be condemned by the pure. The very substance of the rioters’ lives cries out with injustice. So, they target scapegoats. They deflect and they project. Snagged in a trap of irresolvable contradictions, they lash out and their fury is strategically directed by politicians, educators, lobbyists and agitators. The Christian destroys the pagan idol; the Muslim destroys the infidel’s false image; the warrior for social justice destroys the statue of his ancestor. Each seeks to expiate guilt and protect the next generation from encountering the false authority. Some leave ruins, others leave none.