A Reading of 21st Century Ruins Aesthetic

Post by Livia Dubon Bohlig

As Jacques Derrida (Dillon, 2011:43) affirms, a portrait representing a face, in its immutable state, comes back to us as a spectre of the past. It is a ruin of our appearance. “Ruin is the self-portrait, this face looked at in the face as the memory of itself, what remains or returns as a spectre from the moment one first looks at oneself and a figuration is eclipsed.” Differently from a portrait, which gives a feeling of melancholic narcissism, buildings are destined to decay, like our body, and, if not taken care of, they become scars.

Deserted places are not just matter but, as ruins, they embody a set of historical paradoxes. They are survivors of the past and testimonies of the future; they are images able to project us into a temporal limbo similar to Ballard’s novels. Fascination towards ruins is nothing new. The aesthetic of ruins has its far away roots in the Renaissance but, in the twentieth century, it distances itself from the romantic nostalgia’s ‘ruin lust’, recurrent till the nineteen century. Bound at the beginning to the optimistic rise and fall of utopias like modernism or regimes like the Soviet, ruins acquire multiple meanings. Brian Dillon in his “A Short History of Decay” (Dillon, 2011:10) asserts that we are living in a time of ruination. The prospect of planetary ruination through climate change, the explosion of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the destruction of the two towers in New York, and the global financial crises with unfinished or abandoned buildings, vigorously portray this issue. Bernd & Hilla Becher, Jeremy Deller, Susan Hiller, Rachel Whiteread are just some of the artist that have turned to themes and imagery of decay and destruction.

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Io Non Sono Qui (I Am Not Here): The Exhibition

Io Non Sono Qui is a photographic exhibition of Andrea Nuvoloni’s work, which took place at the Church of S. Pietro Martire (Verona, Italy) in May 2013. The images capture landscapes embedded in forgotten memories; evocative poetries to encourage the public to meditate upon emotive traces that we leave behind when we abandon a place. Shoes, photos, a treasure box, deserted archives are images of past lives. This is is an example of the twenty-first century aesthetic of ruins as predominantly manifested in Italy. After thirty-five years of the Basaglia Law (which led to the the closing down of all psychiatric hospitals), in fact, artists have shown a great interest in abandoned ex-psychiatric hospitals – the main subject of this show. Nuvoloni’s strong chiaroscuro and use of black and white offers a melancholic patina revealing the absence of humanity. They uncover the trauma, the pains and hopes of those that once lived in these places. However, as Walter Benjamin said, amidst these melancholic ruins we also wish to find the very elements to imagine the future.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin
Barthes, R. (1980) La camera chiara, nota sulla fotografia. Torino: Einaudi
Belpoliti, M. (2005) Crolli. Torino: Enaudi
Dillon, B. (c2011) Ruins, Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press
Vidler, A. (c2000) Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass ; London : The MIT Press
Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. NewYork: Schocken Books Inc
Derrida, J. (1990) Memoires d’aveugle: l’autoportrait et autre ruine. Paris: Éditions de la Reunion des musées nationaux in Dillon, B. (c2011) Ruins, Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press


Andrea Nuvoloni is a Verona-based photographer and lawyer who won the BLACK AND WHITE SPIDER AWARDS (2012), and the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY CONTEST (2010), third place in the category “Places”.

The exhibition took place in May 2013 at Chiesa di S. Pietro Martire, Piazza Sant’Anastasia, Verona, with the support of Legambiente. With its project “Salvalarte”, Legambiente aims to encourage cultural and aesthetic appreciation of local, lesser-known heritage sites such as the church of San Pietro Martire (Saint Peter Martyr, a small church in the centre of Verona) and to make audiences aware of issues of urban degradation.

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