Why do people paint pictures of ruins

It is a lifetime requiem that is mourned: human civilization.

What will remain of us after we do away with ourselves? Our culture is already dreaming of it, in images of decay and wilderness. Now the chronic cult of ruin has even arrived in discount stores.

From Florian KellerMail to AutorInTwitter profile of the author

Oh, how picturesque. A vending machine in the green, well filled with colorful cans, but has not been needed for a long time, as it stands lost in a field of knee-high weeds. Or see the scaffolding of a discarded roller coaster out there on the beach in the spray; like the skeleton of a bizarre dinosaur it towers into the sky. But the sunken age this skeleton tells of is our own. Welcome to the world without people!

What will remain of us after we do away with ourselves? This is what “Homo Sapiens” tries to show, a cinematic end-time study of exquisitely composed tableaus of decay and wilderness. A disused amusement park, an overgrown train station in the suburbs, a huge wrecked sports arena somewhere in the Eurasian no man's land: It is the abandoned places of today from which this film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter imagines a depopulated future. In an abandoned church a pigeon flutters up, somewhere else a toad hops into the picture, we hear a constant dripping, at the end a roaring wind - but nowhere is a person who disturbed these idylls of doom.

It is a lifetime requiem that is mourned: human civilization.

Meditate in the end times

In “Homo Sapiens” the camera looks at this posthuman age without any movement, as patiently and unmoved as no human eye could ever be able to. So even the gaze has become inhuman - as if this entire film were a video message from a not too distant future, recorded and arranged by an artificial intelligence according to our time. And we? We are still sitting quite comfortably in the cinema or in front of our screen when we enjoy such end-time pornography, no matter how artfully and meditatively trimmed it is.

What is actually going on? What do such pictures do to us, and what kind of morbid pleasure is it that we get from them? Around ten years before “Homo Sapiens”, the US journalist Alan Weisman speculated in his book “The World Without Us” (2007) about how the earth might one day change when humans are no longer there: in 20 years if the main axes of Manhattan had turned into rivers, in 300 years Hamburg and other cities would have washed away in large river deltas. The scientifically based vision of the future and the poetic film that tracks down the post-apocalyptic world even in our present: Both are just two examples of a culture of decay that is served and celebrated today in all conceivable forms.

There is the subculture of the Urban Explorers, who document their clandestine forays through disused factories and other abandoned sites by posting extremely spectacular amateur photos online. There are whole stacks of coffee table books, lavishly presented illustrated books that pay homage to a dignified ruin chic, with more or less romantic-looking titles such as “Stilllage”, “Ask The Dust” or “Abandoned Places”. And in film and television, the depopulated to overgrown metropolis has long been part of the standard repertoire for every self-respecting post-apocalyptic thriller, from “12 Monkeys” (1995) to “28 Days Later” (2002) and “I Am Legend” ( 2007) to the TV series "The Walking Dead". Whereby these ghostly cityscapes are usually not as empty as they seem at first glance. Mostly they harbor some rabid hordes, zombies or other monsters, against whom the last humans can prove what still distinguishes them from animals (or not).

The pornographic look

These are just the feverish outgrowths of a chronic cult of ruin, for which various names have already been circulating. The British writer Rose Macaulay once coined the term “ruin lust” in her book “Pleasure of Ruins” (1953); the Russian cultural theorist Svetlana Boym later spoke of “ruinophilia”. On the internet, of course, the frivolous catchphrase "ruin porn" has become common around this lust for decay. The term goes back to James D. Griffioen, a freelance urban photographer and blogger from Detroit, who in August 2009 in an article in "Vice" magazine disapproved of the foreign media people who use his hometown only as a backdrop for their "ruin pornography" would exploit. That was aimed at a form of photography that is only after the great shower that grabs us at the sight of mighty industrial ruins or wrecked movie theaters, in Detroit and elsewhere - a photography that is only marginally interested in the social and economic backgrounds that does not ask which people are suffering from it and why a city is so broken, as these pictures make it so gruesome and beautiful.

The talk of “ruin porn” has quickly taken on a life of its own in recent years, the term has long been used affirmatively, as an ironically cushioned buzzword for the pleasure in images of decay. And isn't there something obscene about that too? There are the reportage photos that reach us from Aleppo and elsewhere, the whole city is a huge ruin - and at the same time we click through pictures of relics from the saturated West, with its dilapidated cinemas and factories. The cult of ruins is always escapism as well: from the ruins of the real wars out there, we take refuge in the picturesque backdrops of a more or less natural decay.

The sociologist Georg Simmel already stated in his essay “Die Ruine” (1907) that the special charm of the ruin is lost as soon as one perceives the “destruction by people”, especially drastically in the case of bombed houses. The significance of the ruin, Simmel emphasizes, is based on the "contrast between human work and the effects of nature", on a "cosmic tragedy" between human will and natural decay.

The drone in the restricted area

What the talk of “ruin porn” disguises: Such images of decay nevertheless harbor political potential. If only because every photograph that documents an empty factory or a broken-up cinema, for example, always represents an intervention against the official culture of remembrance: what is preserved, what is worth protecting, what is not? Above all, however, dilapidated or even just abandoned buildings always herald a failure, be it political (the structural relics of the real existing socialism), economic (the ghostly residential areas after the subprime crisis) or ecological (the evacuated area in the red zone in the District of Fukushima).

The vast amount of “ruin porn” that is circulating today can roughly be traced back to three factors: First, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, which made whole landscapes of crumbling industrial buildings accessible, including discarded monuments and other relics of Soviet culture. Secondly, there was deindustrialization, which in the west also led to entire districts in former industrial centers such as Detroit being slowly left to decay. Thirdly, finally, the leap in media technology, which ensured that you no longer need heavy equipment to shoot spectacular photos, even in dangerous terrain and in poor lighting conditions, which can then be shared on the Internet in high resolution; And if the area is contaminated or otherwise dangerous, we don't even have to take photos today - we just send a drone as a remote-controlled camera into the restricted area.

Particularly popular online: the Spomeniks from the time of Tito, Yugoslav World War II monuments to which the Dutch photographer Jan Kempenaers dedicated his illustrated book «Spomenik» (2010). They are monuments that look like futuristic totems of some lost tribal culture. Built to commemorate the war, these socialist relics now appear as harbingers of a possible future that never came.

Imperial backdrops for the future

This whole ruin cult is by no means new. It can be dated as a side effect of the Enlightenment. Simultaneously with the emergence of horror literature, which discovers old walls as the scene of the uncanny, the cult of ruins also awakens - the lust for the morbid as the downside of the modern promise of progress, which with its rationalism seeks to shed light on the darkness everywhere. Since then, the fascination for ruins has run through Western culture, although at different times it has had very different ideological bases. In the landscape architecture of the 18th century, which was directed against the absolutist grid planning of the baroque gardens, it became fashionable to also place specially built ruins in the landscape - as simulated memorials that were supposed to remind people of their transience. False wall remains as memento mori, built in the garden.

But the cult of ruins can also be pursued with the opposite intention: namely to establish the eternal value of a built culture. In 1830, the British artist Joseph Gandy painted the Bank of England in London as a huge complex of ruins from a bird's eye view - at a time when the bank with its various extensions was completely new. Was the picture simply evidence of a particularly morbid fantasy on the part of the artist, or was Gandy an anarchist who dreamed of laying the bank in ruins? Neither nor, the picture was a commissioned work, created by order of Sir John Soane, the chief architect of the Bank of England, who wanted to see his work immortalized as an imaginary excavation site for astonished posterity. In its dream of decay, the architecture is prematurely ennobled as an imposing ancient backdrop for a distant future.

The Nazi architect Albert Speer probably thought similarly when, looking back on his role as Reichsbaumeister under Hitler, he developed his crude "theory of the value of ruins" as a subsequent setting in his book "Recollections" (1969). "The use of special materials and the consideration of special static considerations," said Speer in his memoirs, "should enable buildings that would be similar to the Roman models in a state of disrepair, after hundreds or (as we calculated) thousands of years." The madness of the “Thousand Year Reich” is also evident in the fact that even the remains are dreamed up on an imperial scale after its fall, so, as Speer writes, “overgrown with ivy, with collapsed pillars, the masonry collapsing here and there , but still clearly recognizable in the large outlines ».

Ruin from the retort

In a historical punch line that couldn't be imagined more beautifully, a solid, petty-bourgeois cast of Speer's idea arrived today in the online shop of a German discounter: "Design your own antique retreat and create a flair from the ancient world." The ruin that is advertised with these words weighs 4415 kilograms, and it upgrades every communal garden seat to a quasi-historical backdrop. It can be had at Lidl for 1639 euros plus shipping costs. The “rustic look” of the walls, as the product description knows, “can be integrated into almost any garden and landscape design and blends in harmoniously with the surroundings”.

What is being sold here as an “ancient retreat” for private use is, of course, simply a massive kitsch wall made of mundane concrete. And otherwise this ruin from the retort simply looks as if the bricklayer stupidly ran out of stones in the middle of it - there are not even faded false frescoes, weathering effects or other artificial signs of decay that would have been specially added for the purpose of antique flair. But if you buy such a brand-new ruin for your own garden, you will hardly complain afterwards that the pretense of real history is obviously not included in the price.

The ruin from the cheap market as an outdoor accessory for the family home? With this our cultural obsession for objects of decay has become completely commodity-shaped. And the rampant ruin pornography has already congealed to the Biedermeier backdrop.

Utopia from the rubble

But what does the recent renaissance of ruin chic that we are currently experiencing tell us about our time? Or, to put it another way: what kind of empire would it be whose downfall we imagine in such images? The geographer and urban explorer Bradley L. Garrett believes that these images of decay and wilderness function as negative wishful thinking: the industrial ruin as an alternative place of longing for a time in which there was no alternative to capitalism. After all, according to Garrett, the utopia that will one day rise from the rubble of an economic collapse may not be as paradisiacal as we would like it to be.

The US art historian Dora Apel aims in the opposite direction when she reads our obsession for ruins as a symptom of fear of decline in her book “Beautiful Terrible Ruins” (2015). She sees in it a modern form of the romantic sublime: the mighty, which inspires fear because it exceeds our imagination, we tame in contemplation and thus transform it into something that gives us pleasure. By dreaming of a world without people in these pictures of ruins, we temper our fears of decline in late capitalism. Apel compares this with the function of the mushroom cloud, which was able to become the iconic image of the nuclear age precisely because the extent of the destruction and all human sacrifices in it are completely hidden in favor of a cleared vision of "technological grandeur".

Our pornographic ruin cult is to a certain extent the mushroom cloud of the neoliberal era: the popular code for our lust for fear in the time after the collapse of the bloc politics, but before the climate collapse. And last but not least, with these images we alleviate our guilty conscience in the Anthropocene, the age in which humans have become geological drivers. That is the posthuman confidence that we persuade ourselves in the face of these images of a depopulated world: Nature will take back what belongs to her.

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