Interest in and fascination with the past has, to a varying extent, been a mainstay in the visual arts since at least ancient Rome. Stories, myths, fairytales all focused on times long gone and with them brought a sense of nostalgia, an urge to delve deep into the past and understand what it was like to live centuries ago. Monuments remaining from civilizations that came before as residue of human achievement sparked the imagination. It was as early as the Renaissance that artists started tackling the theme of architectural ruins and decay in their oeuvre. They already featured prominently in quite a few of Andrea Mantegna's history and religious paintings. Further down the line, the 18th century sparked two distinct movements. With the excavation of Pompeii and Herculanum, the Western world became once again enamoured with the classical past. Hubert Robert and many other artists offered a rose-tinted view of its surviving monuments. On the other side of Europe, first in Britain, then in Germany and France, the "gothic" craze swept the imagination of the public with Medieval ruins becoming magnets for painters and novelists alike. In the second half of the 20th century, with the advent of the urban art movement, urban decay started drawing the attention of artists who found beauty, poignancy, and room for social commentary in the disrepair and decrepitude of once fully functional yet now abandoned cityscapes.
Leonardo Drew is an African-American artist. Growing up in the housing projects of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the city dump occupied every view from his apartment. Such surroundings generated the ideas of re-use of materials, life, death, regeneration that feature in his oeuvre to this day. His intallations and sculptures are a mixture of natural and manmade materials. Often mistaken for consisting of found objects, the works are actually made of fresh materials, intentionally subjected to processes of weathering, oxidisation, burning and decay. Invoking the idea of the cyclical nature of existance, they also serve critique social injustices. Number 77 is a monumental example of this type of design which reminds the viewer if the merciless, dehumanising aspect of modern existance yet also imparts a melancholic feel.
Igor Mitoraj (1944-2014) initially studied painting in his native Poland and France but his fascination with Latin American culture and a year spent in Mexico were to guide him to a different path. He eventually took up sculpture and was to devote his efforts to creating works firmly rooted in the classical tradition (even taking bronze and marble as primary materials) yet posessing a post-modern twist. Large-scale and often displayed in public spaces, they appear to have endured the wears and tears of time and thus merge well with their surroundings - Mitoraj's Eternal Love seems as if naturally belonging to the Valley of the Temples in Sicily. Having spent years working on stage sets for the opera, the artist posessed a flair for the dramatic yet also the power to calmly draw the viewer into his world.
A London-based visual artist, Zarina Bhimji was born in Uganda but moved with her parents to the UK at the age of 11, after the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community in the Idi Amin era. Shortlisted for the 2007 Turner Prize, her haunting films and photographs explore the theme of abandonment, decay, of displaced lives, and hopes left behind. While the figure is often absent, the photographs emit a human presence - albeit one that was, not one that still is. Centered around India and East Africa, her works represent colonial offices in Mumbai harbour, abandoned Haveli palaces, decaying homes of those forced to leave them behind. Layered by their histories, these landscapes and buildings evoke a past that is not necessarily a happy one. Your Sadness is Drunk is no exception.
Two young Frenchmen, Yves Marchand and Eomain Meffre, met in 2002, and quickly developed a strong working bond. The two photographers share a passion for ruined cityscapes and have traveled extensively, documenting through photography the decay of post-industrial towns in France, Belgium, Germany, the US and Asia. Their book of photographs of once powerful Detroit, MI spanning four years of its decline was recieved with great acclaim and is now in its third edition. Marchand and Meffre focus on buildings whose architecture embodies the psychology of an age and a system and give a glimpse into what happens when the system ceases to exist. Cooling Tower, Power Station, Monceau-sur-Sambre, Belgium shows such an eerie, melancholic view, while also offering an impressive visual impact an industrial structure can have.
Evoking canonical works and artists, American Valerie Hegarty critically engages with both history and the current political system. Known for her paintings, sculptures and installations, she realistically imagines the impact of disasters on iconic cultural objects. Taking advantage of influences as diverse as water, fire, guns, earthqakes and woodpeckers, she distresses her carefully constructed fictitious objects. Her In the Woods, Of the Woods, almost an reimagination of a Thomas Moran or an Albert Bierstadt heroic landscape, initially created to invoke strong patriotic feelings, further down the line becomes a symbol of the rise, fall and rebirth of an empire, a story about a grand yet flawed system in nature. Her "reverse archeology" destroys only to bring to life again.
Jermyn Street (an actual street in St James's area of the City of Westminster in London, famous for its shops aimed at the gentlemen's clothing market) is yet another work that exposes the seedy underbelly of the glossy and superficially beautiful world of the upper classes. Reimagining the well known location, Donovan shows the proverbial other side of the coin, the poverty that exists underneath, our own faults and shortcomings - greed, wrath, gluttony. Miranda Donovan specializes in what she calls "sculptural paintings", constructing 3D surfaces that merge assemblage and graffiti, manipulating light and color in order to create emotionally charged images, depicting (real and fictional) urban ruins as the defining human landscapes of our time.
Selected as one of the top 25 emerging artists at the Chinese Art Prize in 2008, Kang Yongfeng hails from Hunan. His traditional choice of technique of oil on canvas contrasts sharply with his fresh and modern method of painting, and subject-matter closely focused on images of decaying American cars from the 50's and the 60's. These vehicles have for decades been symbols of luxury in Africa, some parts of Asia and the Carribean, but their glory days are now long gone. On works such as Yongfeng's No 61, they seem to have fallen into state of disrepair, a symbolic nuclear fallout, and are now ready to develop an eco-system of their own, as if their rotting carcases are about to give life to a multitude of unexpected shapes and forms.
Having his work appear alongside that of Banksy at the Cans Festival in London in 2008, Portuguese graffiti street artist Alexandre Farto (known under the pseudonym of Vhils) quickly gained prominence. Using public and political figures, as well as ordinary folk as models for his gigantic projects, drilling away layers of posters, dirt and plaster, he sets free the poetic images hidden underneath, giving walls a face, so to speak. Using bleach, etching acid, pneumatic drills, Vhils carves relief portraits that grab the attention and expose the hidden. Revealing layers of social and historical fabric through semi-archaeological dissecting, he destroys to create, his works becoming one with the architecture.
Indian-American from Chicago, IL, Armita Raafat moved with her family to Iran in 1980 when she was four, only to return to the US in 2003. Having witnessed the Iran-Iraq War, the artist's work is heavily drenched in sense of vulnerability, posessing a tension vibrating between absence and presence, destruction and preservation. Using Middle Eastern patterns and motifs, she performs an archeology of memory, applying ornament in state of ruin. In this particular piece, only unofficially titled Three Walls, she uses hexagonal cells, maqarnas (an Islamic decorative design device mostly used in domes) to give a powerful metaphor of cultural ruin.
At only 22, urban spelunker and urban photographer Gregory Berg has reached his art fame through the main creative outlet of his generation - Instagram. Recovering from addiction, Berg found a way to get the adrenaline going, thrawling the decaying bowels of the New York subway. Titled Exploring, NYC Subway, one of his many images shows the beautiful, now defunct City Hall station, with its curved track and vaulted ceilings, with colors and textures of a dystopian underworld, catching a blur from the passing train (which the artist claims to be his favourite type of shot). Tiptoeing next to the subway's third rail famously carrying 625 volts of electricity and trying to avoid stepping on dead rats, Berg quips "fear is only mental".
All images used for illustrative purposes only.