Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Ruins: Our Love of Decay

“(...) the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.”
John Ruskin, 'The Lamp of Memory', The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849)

Shipwreck on Inis Oirr, Arran Islands, Ireland

Shipwrecks, castle ruins, decaying gravestones; we seem to be endlessly inspired by these reminders of age and the finite nature of humanity.  The more isolated and abandoned, the better.  It cannot be denied that stumbling across those remnants of fashioned rock that had once been a farmhouse or  chapel bring out a glimpse of the poet and artist in all of us.  Shakespeare's historical plays and tragedies that inhabit ruinous landscapes, Pre-Raphaelite paintings in crumbling architectural settings, decay has been a prominent theme throughout the artistic development of the Western world.  

'Love Among Ruins'  Edward Coley Burne Jones

     In recent years there has been a growing trend in ruin photography and so called 'Urban Explorers' who venture into abandoned tube stations and old factories to revel in the picturesque decay and sense of adventure.  Last year, a series of photographs focusing on the ruins of Detroit, once the industrial heart of America, birthed the term 'Ruin Porn', a critical response to the exploitation of abandoned buildings for artistic self-indulgence.

The United Artists Theater, Detroit
      What is about decay that we find so fascinating?  We are aware of and threatened by our own mortality, but when confronted with the process in the form of architecture we celebrate that which, in 1762, Lord Kames declared as '...a triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought'.

    In Rose Macauley's much admired work 'The Pleasure of Ruins,'  she considers the psychological reasoning behind this fascination.  She writes that 'Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth'.   So, could our ruin lust be rooted in a sort of philosophical vertigo?  Or is it purely the sense of nostalgia?  I am torn myself between declaring it as a subconscious association with age or simply memory. 

   Some time ago, a small group of us was walking on Carnned Llewellyn, a mountain in North Wales.   As we walked along the slope below the ridge that connects the mountain to Carnned Dafydd, we stumbled across a scattering of rusted Ironwork.   There were pieces thrown all over the side of the mountain, mostly embedded in the ground through time.  A member of the party declared it as being parts of an aircraft, probably some kind of bomber.  

A bit of wing and some undercarriage structure, maybe....
     There was something wonderfully surreal about those scatterings of human industry contrasted with the wild landscape.   It almost felt as if we had come across skeletal human  remains. 

      On returning home, we researched it immediately.   We discovered that the crash had occurred in the late hours of March 14th 1950 on a cross country exercise.   Six people were tragically killed in the accident.  There are a wealth of aircraft wreckage sites on Mountainsides in the UK.  You can find the link to the story and others here.

      Had the remains been stored in a museum, with the aid of an information screen, it is very unlikely that we would have any interest at all.  However, the fact that the remains of the tragedy were left to decay on the site of their demise for over fifty years is rather Romantic, albeit Macabre.   We may be fascinated in such discoveries due to their sense of 'abandonment' and 'forgotteness',  but this is a delusion, their position sparks the interest of all passers by, immortalizing the memory of the lives lost.  

    “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. How old is the world! I walk between two eternities
Denis Diderot (1767)

A New Zealander observes the archaic ruins of London (Gustave Dore, 1872)

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Turner House, Twickenham

Today we visited Sandycombe Lodge in Twickenham, also known as the house designed and lived in by Romantic era artist J.M.W Turner.  I myself am rather unpretentious in my artistic tastes, and think there's nothing better than a dramatic and overtly sentimental seascape;

'Fishermen at Sea', 1794.  Thank you, Tate Britain.

However, Turner's House is surprisingly modest, nestled unassumingly in the leafy suburbs of Twickenham.  The house has been altered from it's original form somewhat due to renovations by later residents, so it currently stands as this;

as opposed to this;

1813, perhaps.

In 1947 Professor Harold Livermore and his wife Anne acquired the property, apparently accepting it in a very derelict state (it had prior been used as a shadow factory for the World War II efforts) and made it their mission to salvage it's heritage and Turner's memory.   In 2005 'The Turner House Trust' was set up enabling Professor Livermore's wishes for a secure future for the house on the event of his death. 

Turner's sketchbook of designs for the house are cared for by Tate Britain and accessible online

The project and assessment of this current module is to propose an event, idea or installation that engages public interest in Sandycombe lodge, as currently it is relatively bare and unvisited (due to limited funding, should this upset you donate here) which renders it unlimited in it's potential. 

In regards to this, I was reading some information on Turner's father, William, who cared for the house while his son worked at The Royal Academy, and would occasionally walk the ten miles it took to see him lecture.  

'Old Dad' Turner

My original idea was to possibly force the public to undertake that 10 mile walk into Central London, but that seemed a bit cruel.  So instead I have considered the potential for a 'Turner Trail' that begins and concludes at Sandycombe Lodge, with stop points at Richmond Hill and Richmond bridge, from which the view has been immortalised in Turner's work;

'View of Richmond Hill and Bridge' 1808.  One of many Richmond based Turner works.
And for a wider scope on Turner and friends, there a few residences dotted around lived in by men greatly admired by Turner such as Sir Joshua Reynolds (Wick House).  Alexander Pope, another hero of Turner's, also dwelt in the area, the remains of which are now occupied by Radnor House independent school, but I think that might be pushing the distance a bit! 

Very tempted to make archaic maps for the occasion. 
 Of course, there are a lot of logistics and Google-mapping to do before I can confirm such a proposal and there is, unfortunately, another 'Turner Trail' in Yorkshire so I may have to alter the name slightly, but I am planning to take a stroll in the next few days to test it's potential so I will report back on that!

Monday, 7 October 2013

An Introduction to the Politics of Heritage: Part Two

For a case study a little closer to home, I have been thinking about 'ownership' of Heritage and where the rights of objects really lie.  

The British Museum

About 200 years ago Lord Elgin, an ambassador for Britain, removed sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens and bought them back home.  He sold them to The British Museum and after a brief settlement it was decided that the museum did indeed have complete legal ownership of the sculptures and they are still housed there today.

Who wouldn't want to keep them?

However, Greece isn't particularly happy about this and is still urging Britain to send them back, especially as they have the lovely new(ish)  Acropolis Museum to keep them warm in.  

The Acropolis Museum has made copies of the sculptures, to complete their Parthenon reconstruction.

Greek politicians argue that Britain has a moral duty to return the sculptures to it's rightful place.  However the British Museum refuses, stating the the museum represents the history of world humanity, transcending borders with free access to visitors from around the globe.  There are also a lot of written laws to support their ownership, which is potentially why the Greeks used the 'moral' card.

The term 'World Heritage' promotes the idea that great buildings and artifacts are not limited to a nation, but belong to anyone in the world who shows an interest (or arguably, a small committee representing the interested world).    There are definitely both positive and negative aspects to this notion.  

To follow on from this, I found this interesting link that lists the Top Ten Plundered Artifacts currently on display to the public.

An Introduction to The Politics of Heritage

For my first module 'Interrogating Heritage' we have been looking at the theoretical and practical implications of managing Heritage, with bodies such as UNESCO issuing charters on what can be classified as being of 'Heritage Value'.  There is, of course, much criticism posed towards the worth of these lists and whether they truly represent Heritage at all. 

I read an article by Rodney Harrison entitled 'The Politics of Heritage' (it can be found here:  which helped me to consider this more. 

Harrison introduces us to the ongoing conflict between national identity and heritage, specifically how the politics of heritage can interfere with the ‘public viewpoint’.  These issues mostly concern class, nationalism and post-colonialism.
Harrison then notes that ‘politics’ can symbolise to many authority or power, which raises the problem of whether official heritage is just a very small group of society controlling and remaking the past as a means to their own ends, or to just facilitate their own viewpoint rather than that necessarily of ‘the people’.
The article tackles the issue of a common ‘World Heritage’ and how this could be seen as imposing a negative, universalising effect on local culture, however in some cases international authorities need step in order to protect diversity from the homogenising nation-state.  He then introduces to us the incredibly complicated case study of 'The Bamiyan Valley Buddhas'...

The Ancient Masterpiece Itself

In the Third Century BC the Bamiyan valley, which is a region of central eastern Afghanistan, was first occupied during the height of Buddhist culture in Central Asia, between the 4th and 8th centuries it became an important monastic centre for Buddhism and during this time the two Buddha’s were carved into the limestone, which were the largest standing Buddha’s in the world and served as a reminder of the Buddhist past of the area.  Time went on and many humanly made caves, grottoes and niches were also carved into the hillsides, which functioned as temples and shelters for monks and contained elaborately carved decorations.
In the 11th Century Afghanistan embraced Islam and in the early 13th Century the town of Bamiyan and the Buddhist monuments were ransacked, and although they weren’t completely damaged, over a period of time leaders would encourage the Afghan citizens to deface the statues as a symbolic way of showing the power of Islam and the current political leaders in opposition to the alternative religious past of the area.  

A map of the Islamic Invasion of Central Asia

However the caves remained mostly deserted until during the twentieth century European and Japanese archaeologists became interested in the area and started doing research, however this was unfortunately terminated by the soviet military occupation of Afghanistan in the seventies, and then after that the civil war in Afghanistan prevented any more research, so these Buddhas have been in the middle of a political storm for quite a while.   Never as much as in 2001, however, when the Taliban ignored protests from the USA, Europe and neighboring countries and destroyed the Bamiyan Valley Buddhas as they breached Islamic law as false icons.

It wasn't just a simple job either, The Taliban were perturbed to find it actually took several weeks to completely destroy the two Buddhas.  Plenty of artillery was used, they even resulted in planting a rocket in Buddha's head.   The Director general of UNESCO Koichiro Matsuura was, understandably, upset  He called the destruction a "...crime against culture. It is abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties which were the heritage of the Afghan people, and, indeed, of the whole of humanity."
There are plenty of issues raised here, the conflict between eastern and western values of heritage being one of them.  However, most people (with the exception of Mullar Mohammed Omar and his friends) seem to agree that this destruction was indeed barbaric, and it is useful to have an authoritative body who can step in should something need to be protected.  And there is a happy ending; the remains are now the center of huge archeological research, are in talks to be restored and are also very popular with visitors. 

What is Heritage?

An example of living heritage: Late 13th Century France, a Monk tests the wine.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Heritage as 'that which is inherited from the past', or specifically 'valued objects and qualities such as historic buildings and cultural traditions that have been passed down from previous generations'.  I believe the distinction between the 'historic buildings' and 'cultural traditions' is important.  Heritage is not only the past preserved in the form of castle, stately home or any other valued artifact that benefits the public interest but a living, breathing force within society.  Whether it be through language, music, food or even fashion, we are constantly reminded of our cultural identity and our links with society and the land upon which we live.   The British public seems to have an insatiable interest with the past, proved not only by the huge annual intake of such places as Warwick Castle but also an increased interest in genealogical research and  popular television series such as Downton Abbey.  
         It is not only our own Heritage we seem to relish either, the tourist industry is not just dependent on the holidaymakers desire for some sun and sea but also their eagerness to feel somewhat involved in a particular nations cultural heritage.  And aside from paying to see historical landmarks we've seen plastered on postcards (how often have you heard from a relative or friend recently returned from their travels; 'Oh, we avoided the tourist trail, we wanted to see the real <insert country here>'?) we learn titbits of language, shop as they do, eat as they do, drink as they do, etc.  When traveling, we engross ourselves in learning everything about a nation's identity that we can, much as we do when meeting a new friend or loved one.  
          In a society of social networking and ever advancing technological possibilities, heritage has never been more accessible.   There is something deeply satisfying in merging our gifts from the present with the gifts of the past.  As a Heritage Studies (Contemporary Practice) Masters student at Kingston University, I intend to utilise this privilege in the form of a Blog, which will hopefully assist me and others in learning more about the infinite definitions of heritage and it's practices in the modern world.