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Appetite for destruction: from Turner to Tacita Dean, artists have long been drawn to ruins

A new exhibition surveys artistic visions of decay.

Turner’s The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey

Ruins are as much about the future as they are about the past. Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and the Colosseum in Rome are not simply buildings: they are memento mori. As the encyclopédiste Denis Diderot noted in 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.” Diderot was not alone. What he was suffering from – a widespread condition for which there is still no cure – is what the Germans called Ruinenlust.

The melancholy allure of decay has always struck artists particularly hard. With the appearance in the mid-18th century of the theory of the picturesque and the sublime in the writings of Edmund Burke and William Gilpin, artists were encouraged to give in to it. “Ruin Lust” at Tate Britain is a fascinating and provocative examination of this strand in British art over the past 250 years.

In 1794, four years before Wordsworth composed his lines about the place, Turner stood in Tintern Abbey and painted a delicate and detailed watercolour showing a pair of Georgian tourists dwarfed by its crumbling arches and weed-sprouting tracery. He was part of a fad; the cream of watercolourists – Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman and Samuel Prout among them – cluttered toppling monastic ruins around the country, luxuriating in their silhouettes and poetic atmosphere. By the time Constable came to depict the stump of Hadleigh Castle (in 1828-29), he used paint so thick and jagged that it had the texture of aged stone.

So pervasive was the lure of ruins that in 1830 John Soane had the extraordinary idea of commissioning Joseph Gandy to paint his newly completed Bank of England as Roman remains. The picture, a metaphor of financial and physical collapse, shows Soane’s building as future archaeologists might find it – roofless, tumble-walled, a maze of decrepit rooms in which the purse strings of the British empire were once held.

Forty years later a Frenchman, Gustave Doré, expanded Gandy’s image of post-imperial decline: The New Zealander shows a visitor from the far side of the world sitting on the banks of a clogged and drying Thames, surveying the broken wharves of the city that cast a broken outline against the sky and the dome of St Paul’s decapitated and cracked like a boiled egg. Shelley’s Ozymandias has been brought to England from the desert.

Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church

James Boswell gave the idea a sinister twist in 1933 in a series of lithographs called The Fall of London, a product of the morbid interwar age. In these pictures, which eerily prefigure the Blitz, not only have London’s buildings been destroyed but they are overrun by a feral underclass of rapists, looters and marauders. Tiny figures scuttle in the rubble and a dead woman’s bare legs give a ghoulish flash of white in the dark. As the solidity of structures has given way, so, too, has the armature of society.

When the war did come, the destruction was too great for the picturesque mindset to survive. The likes of Graham Sutherland and John Piper documented the results of bombs and fire and responded to Rose Macaulay’s suggestion that Ruinenlust had come “full circle: we have had our fill”. It is perhaps no coincidence that John Armstrong’s small painting of the bombed tower of Coggeshall Church in Essex (1940), with the wooden structure of the bell tower ripped open to the skies, resembles a medical illustration of the human body with the skin peeled back to reveal the organs beneath.

The imminence of destruction learned in the 1940s has continued to affect numerous contemporary artists. For example, the exhibition includes Tacita Dean’s film Kodak. Having discovered in 2006 that the company was about to stop producing standard 16mm film, she bought some of the last stock and shot the production process at the company factory in Chalon-sur-Saône. Her film of the plant’s echoing linoleum corridors, pulsating machinery and antiquated circuit boards doubles as a requiem for a fast-disappearing industrial world.

Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville

Rachel Whiteread’s similarly elegiac sequence of photographs of the demolition of the tower blocks on Clapton Park Estate in east London is both an acknowledgement of the speed of urban decline (the buildings being blown up are relatively new, part of the postwar reconstruction of London) and a knowing reference to the melodramatic apocalyptic paintings of John Martin from the early 19th century. If Martin’s livid red panorama The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum of 1822, which opens the exhibition, is a lament for the end of a grand civilisation, Whiteread comments instead on the contemporary culture of obsolescence. The poignancy of her unlovely flats reduced to dust is muted; the past, she suggests, did better ruins than we can manage.

Webster in The Duchess of Malfi said of ruins: “We never tread upon them but we set/Our foot upon some reverend history.” This exhibition, drawn largely from the
Tate’s holdings (part of a contemporary trend to use existing resources in an imaginative way) vividly demonstrates that art has its own parallel history of building new work from the rubble of the old.

“Ruin Lust” runs until 18 May

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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