Monday, 17 March 2014

'Ruin Lust' & John Skoog's 'Redoubt'

From John Skoog, Redoubt (commission from Towner, 2014)
After visiting Tate Britain's new show 'Ruin Lust' recently I felt there was something missing, without being at all clear what it was, and at Towner on Saturday I found it. In his film 'Redoubt', Swedish artist John Skoog doesn't just show a ruin, he also gives a wonderful sense of what it feels like to discover and explore an extraordinary, abandoned site.

Like many Romantically-inclined people I've always loved exploring strange and interesting places, from tumble-down farm sheds of black corrugated iron to pill boxes and similar relics of wartime. As a youngster I used to love an abandoned house that had been half destroyed by some cataclysm, so that you could look straight into the surviving rooms as if into a doll's house. The place stood by itself near a railway line and I vividly remember discovering it for the first time, fragments of glass and masonry crunching underfoot as I approached. Wallpaper still adorned an upstairs bedroom, though the stairs were gone, and I think there was even a bath open to the sky.

That's what Ruin Lust means to me: the thrill of mildly illicit exploration in places that are neither exotic nor far-flung but hidden close to home in thickets or down quiet lanes. I have been very lucky with ruins, from Knowlton Church which lay close to my grandparents' house in Dorset to the abandoned World War II airfields that made such great playgrounds in Lincolnshire in the 1970s.

From John Skoog, Redoubt (commission from Towner, 2014)
Even today you don't have to look very far to find interesting relics of the past, as Paul Nash did when out photographing and collecting 'objets' in 1930s Dorset. I wasn't really expecting to find his photographs of stone steps and bedsteads, let alone pieces like his 'Marsh Personage', in the Tate exhibition, but there they were and it was a pleasure to see them. Nash walked around with his eyes open wide, looking out for interesting stuff, and he had the modern conceptual artist's ability to get the most out of the most humdrum find.

I think my favourite piece in the show is Paolozzi's 'Michelangelo's David', partly because it seems like a scale model of some vast, terribly broken relic of antiquity. And there are plenty of other treats to make a visit well worth it, from Tacita Dean's mesmerizing film of the last days of a Kodak film factory to Constable's sublime 'Sketch for Hadleigh Castle'. But I left with that sense of something missing - unspecified at first - which only made sense once I had seen Skoog's work.

From John Skoog, Redoubt (commission from Towner, 2014)
The subject of 'Redoubt' is one that should make all psychogeographers, flaneurs, Cold War relic hunters and other modern explorers green with envy. As a writer on the Aesthetica Blog put it:

The film is set in the flat farmlands of southern Sweden and focusses on the lifework of a rural farmer, Karl Goran Persson who died in 1971. ... Following the death of his parents in the 1940s, Karl became increasingly paranoid about the threat of Soviet invasion and so obsessively fortified his rye farm with concrete and junk – bicycles, spring beds, anything he could cheaply purchase at the scrapyard was mixed in concrete and cast onto the farm building. As the years pass, the concrete outer of this monument is worn away to reveal the inner artefacts of Karl’s manic fear.

The resulting building is a cross between an abandoned folly and a Cold War bunker. It is dark and dank, its concrete skin pierced with rusty metal. A tree grows through it and beyond its walls the flat farmland stretches away, but these outside realities are only glimpsed. The camera's focus is, like the gaze of the explorer, fixed on the ruin itself.

Ruin Lust is at Tate Britain until 18 May
John Skoog: Redoubt is at Towner until 8 April

There is a ruin near you waiting to be discovered!