Brian Dillon: UR-NOW: The Ruins of the Contemporary

Writer and editor Brian Dillon curated the film programme, UR-NOW: The Ruins of the Contemporary, for the Whitstable Biennale 2010. This short essay accompanied the programme.

‘I am convinced that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past.’
– Robert Smithson

It’s a commonplace of contemporary culture that we live our lives at several speeds in the same instant. That is, in a sense, what it means to be modern: to inhabit a world governed by competing timeframes, none of which may claim authority over the others. Though it is sometimes asserted too easily that certain logical or narrative schemes have wholly determined modern life since the Enlightenment and the industrial revolutions – stories of scientific or technological progress, of secularization and the spread of democracy or triumph of capitalism – a moment’s reflection reveals this to be an illusion. We live rather at the confluence of numerous flows of time, among competing and sometimes complementary histories of personal development, economic advancement or decline, spiritual optimism or melancholic nostalgia, the rapid oscillations of fashion and cultural innovation. The fleeting moment that we call the present is nothing more than the juncture of these narratives, with their different velocities and uncertain destinations.

But such a vision of our historical present – a picture that is best called ‘postmodern’, though the term now has a nostalgic ring – is still in thrall, despite its claim on flux and plurality, to a rather unitary and even static conception of the contemporary. To live in this variegated ‘now’ is still to live at the vanguard of historical process – it is just that today we acknowledge that there are several processes converging and departing in the same moment. We continue to believe that being contemporary means being of the moment, arriving always anew at a point in time that may be traversed by different histories but remains (for now) ineluctably itself. According to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, this sense of being fully in the present is in itself an illusion. Rather, he argues, to be contemporary entails precisely a step beyond our own time – it’s only by standing outside of ‘the now’ that we can hope to see the present moment in its fullness, only by giving in to what is condemned as ‘dated’ or ‘utopian’ that we may claim to live in the here and now. What Agamben says of the out-of-date is equally true of the yet-to-come: ‘Historians of literature and of art know that there is a secret affinity between the archaic and the modern, not so much because the archaic forms seem to exercise a particular charm on the present, but rather because the key to the modern is hidden in the immemorial and the prehistoric.’ [i]

As Agamben acknowledges, this is not an entirely new insight, and in fact was already known to artists and thinkers from the Renaissance onwards who possessed a ready emblem, subject to many local and historical variations, with which to represent the failure of the present to accord with itself in time. That image was the ruin: an aesthetic category that flourished most obviously in the Romantic period when it seemed that much or most of Western art and literature had become entranced by the power of the fragment and the historical omens that lay buried in the wreckage of the past. According to this way of seeing, the present is understood to be haunted by relics of the past (whether classical or medieval) that in their turn serve as proleptic reminders of the kind of future catastrophe which will result from present hubris, or which is simply a consequence of the natural historical course of things. Everything tends to the partial, the unfulfilled, the broken souvenir and fateful talisman. Ruination can even be conceived in this period as the founding condition of being modern in the first place: just as classical ruins formed for the Renaissance a set of models for present artistic endeavours, so the modern artist or writer takes the broken fragment as his or her model – the difference, of course, is that in the modern period it’s the ruination itself that seems to accord with the provisional, atomized condition of contemporary life.

In the wake not just of modernity but of Modernism – which seemed variously to upend conceptions of time even as it largely ensured that they still flowed in the same direction – the ruin is a melancholy admonition to progressive and utopian dreams. The ruins of the twentieth century, or of the decade just ended, point assuredly to a world gone by, but more resonantly they suggest futures as yet unlived and at present grounded in the recent past, where they do not really belong. The modern ruin seems doubly out of time – it returns from the past to haunt our present and at the same time appears to have arrived from a future that it challenges us to bring into being. It’s this paradoxical quality of the ruin – it is not merely a relic but a prophecy too – that has made it such a rich source of inspiration and such a constant topic for art in recent decades. Whether in response to a perceived waning of ideological certainties at the end of the Cold War and a fascination for the archaeology it left behind, a sense of catastrophism attendant on environmental collapse and economic turmoil (both, of course, no less ideologically determined than life in the era of the ‘old’ ideologies), or a sense that the long hangover of Modernism was not cured by the controversies called postmodernism, the concept and materiality of the modern ruin continue to exercise many contemporary artists.


This programme of recent artists’ films does not pretend to survey the category of the ruin as it appears in contemporary art, and still less to encapsulate or solve the vast historical and philosophical questions raised by the concept. In fact there are few actual ruins in evidence here, and those that are present are also part of more wide-ranging or more localized and personal works. This is not, in other words, a selection of videos that either documents the reality of the modern ruin or simply records a ruinous tendency in contemporary art. Instead, all the artists may be said to have responded in their choice of works to the topics of knowledge, memory, duration and spectacle that the idea of the modern ruin suggests. In some cases the traditionally melancholic or even tragic valence of the ruin is maintained; in others, destruction and decay are rendered frankly comic and the ruin appears as a prop in a kind of slapstick performance of historical distance or confusion. Elsewhere it’s not the lost or decayed object to which the artist draws our attention, but an enigmatic sense of chronological or cultural displacement, the paradox (which is also that of the ruin) of feeling ourselves hovering between past and present, or between the past and an uncertain future.

Some of the works in the show address specific buildings, sites, landscapes and histories. For Mie Olise’s Into the Pyramid (2008), for example, the artist travelled to an abandoned Soviet mining facility, known as The Pyramid, in northern Norway. Olise made a number of works there but the video she has chosen for the current exhibition focuses in particular on the interiors of the buildings, conjuring a vanished community out of bare rooms and the few extant furnishings that recall their lives at this remote geographical and historical point. Bernd Behr’s Weimar Villa (Unreconstructed) (2010) depicts a new gated community being built in China; by a peculiar irony, the complex has been designed by Albert Speer Jr., the son of Hitler’s architect, to replicate the styles (though clearly not the progressive political ethos) of the Bauhaus. Screened in reverse, Behr’s film shows this strangely anachronistic place speeding forwards into the past. Declan Clarke’s Cologne Overnight (2010) also essays surprising connections across time and geography, in this case tracing (via the work of the German writer Henrich Böll) connections between the ruins of post-war Germany, abandoned villages in Ireland and the ‘ghost estates’ that haunt the Irish countryside in the wake of economic collapse. Clarke also broaches the subject of the archive (in this case Böll’s archive, recently destroyed with the collapse of a building in Cologne): a space or structure that in its dated perseverance has something in common with the ruin.

The videos by Tom Dale, Nina Katchadourian and Olivia Plender are more obliquely related to the theme of ruination. While Dale’s Rubble Carousel (2010) shows projected footage of buildings being demolished in East London (shot from a moving vehicle) and moves constantly between times, his Shot Through (2007) is a deadpan displacement of the venerable theme of picturesque decay in a rural setting. Here, a full drum kit is shot to pieces till nothing remains but silent fragments upon which (with apparently precise timing) rain falls and a peal of thunder is heard. Equally laconic in its approach to historical imagery is Nina Katchadourian’s Endurance (2002), a static shot of the artist’s mouth as she tries to maintain a fixed grin while footage of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition is projected onto one of her teeth. As a study in belatedness and historical failure the piece is typical of Katchadourian’s work; she has long been interested in those moments when elaborate plans and arbitrary rules give way to strangeness and surprise. Plender’s Monitor (2007) explicitly addresses the question of what it means to be contemporary and asks how cultural value is assigned or disallowed from works and individuals. Taking her title from a ground-breaking television series of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Plender uses the original interviews with four artists trying to make their way in the London art world of the 1960s and juxtaposes that script with contemporary images of the gentrified districts where they lived and worked and the minutiae of artistic life in London today.

Gerard Byrne’s work has long been concerned too with the possibilities of anachronism and especially with the process of reconstruction or translation between historical eras and artistic media. Though he has sometimes directly engaged what we might call an archaeology of Modernism – whether in the form of architecture, art or literature – in his Hommes à Femmes (Michel Debrane) (2004) he attempts another sort of renovation and displacement. The ‘script’ for Byrne’s video is an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre conducted in 1977 by the French journalist Catherine Chaîne – the conversation was specifically about the philosopher’s relations with women and especially with Simone de Beauvoir. By giving Sartre’s words to an actor who does not resemble him and can only distract the viewer from the source material, Byrne (as often in his films) brings us close to the historical moment around which the work revolves, but never allows us an uncritical perspective on the material and its presentation. Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) similarly skews our understanding of a historical document, in this case one which is also a founding example of filmic art. Louis Lumière’s 1895 film of the same title is not only one of the first examples of documentary film, but the original instance of an image that would become politically charged in the twentieth century while remaining oddly invisible in terms of film history. Out of discarded remnants of workers’ history Farocki reconstructs an alternative, if partial, history of the century and its central art form.

All of these works, then, are in some way committed to establishing unprecedented links between their present moment and the past or future. Destruction, failure and decay are recurring themes but the videos are hardly exhausted by those subjects, nor do the artists claim to thoroughly engage such overbearing topics. Instead they simply share a keen attention to slippages between times – movements that give rise to historical ironies, formally intriguing parallels, political affinities and comic possibilities. In their blatant or subtle departures from the present they enact Agamben’s definition of what it means to be contemporary: ‘Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands…. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time.’ [ii]

Brian Dillon is reader in critical writing at the Royal College of Art, and UK editor of Cabinet magazine. His books include Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg Press, 2014), Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011), Ruins (MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery, 2011), Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (Penguin, 2009) and In the Dark Room (Penguin 2005). His writing appears regularly in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, Artforum and frieze. He is currently working on a book about the Great Explosion at Faversham in 1916. He lives in Canterbury.

[i] Giorgio Agamben, ‘What Is the Contemporary?’, in What Is an Apparatus and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 51.
[ii] Ibid. p. 40.


Photograph: Brian Dillon.