Representation and Discourse on Ruins in Contemporary Chilean Art

The journal Artishock has just published an article (in Spanish) that presents the results of my research stay at the Centro de Estudios Asiáticos in Pontíficia Universidad Católica de Chile in 2013, thanks to a Santander Universidades grant.

The article discusses representations of ruins in contemporary Chile, focusing on the remnants of the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Worksdeclared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, and site-specific projects and installations by contemporary artist Sebastián Preece.

I take the opportunity to publish a few more of the photographs that I took at the saltpeter works site.




Ruin gallery # 2

Sophie_Ritelhueber_Arménie, 1989

Sophie Ristelhueber, Arménie, 1989. ©Sophie Ristelhueber

John Thomson, The Ming Tombs, Nanking, 1874

John Thomson, Ruins of the Porcelain Tower, Nanking, illustrations of China and Its People, volume 3, 1874

Gioacchino Altobelli_RomanForum-NightView_c.1870_albumenprint

Gioacchino Altobelli, Roman Forum -Night View, c.1870


“Ungebung nachen Kampfen”, Tianjin, 1903

Zhang Kechun; Under the Abandoned Pier, 2013-2014

Zhang Kechun, The Yellow River series, Untitled no. 4, 2013-2014. ©Zhang Kechun

Captura de pantalla 2014-11-06 a las 18.48.24

Nadav Kander, The Polygon Nuclear Test Site I (After the Event), Kazakhastan, 2011. ©Nadav Kander

Ruins in China’s Intellectual and Artistic Modernity

[This post is based in my presentation at Spain’s Forum for Asia-Pacific Studies (FEIAP), which took place in Granada last February, intitled “Ruin and Demolition in the Intellectual and Artistic Fields of China’s Modernity”]


After the long history of ruin painting in Europe, ruins adopted new connotations in the wake of technological modernity. The greater destructive potential of modern warfare (shells of wider caliber and, as twentieth-century advanced, aerial bombardment), accelerated and enlarged the process and scope of destruction. Next to this, new media of image reproduction (photography and film) accelerated ruin representation and expanded the scope of their diffusion.

At the end of the imperial era, reformist thinkers in China perceived their nation as a vast and static ruin, sick of being parched up after the violent encounter with the West and different internal strives. “What we need are destroyers who would bring reforms”, would diagnose Lu Xun, the great physician of the country; characters like Nietzsche, Tolstoy or Ibsen, would demand Liang Shuming, who would destroy all things ancient that block the road to progress. It is not a chance that the context for Lu Xun’s demand for these ‘destroyers of old ways’ was an essay on the occasion of the collapse of the Leifeng Pagoda. What a newspaper criticized as a “mentality of tearing walls down”  (chaicheng de sixiang) (cf. Visser 2004), favored an imaginary of collapsing, destruction and ruins.


Burned in the 16th century, Leifeng Pagoda, in Hangzhou’s West Lake, offered a ruined sight untill its total collapse in 1924.

This movement for the regeneration of the nation coincided with more real ruins caused by Japanese bombs. Woodcuts, film and photography, especially those used for patriotic mobilization, would display these fresh ruins.


Still from Three Modern Woman (dir. Bu Wancang, 1932) shot in Shanghai shortly after a Japanese attack. The main characters wakes up to patriotism and war-time solidarity after contemplating the devastation of the bombardment.

This combination of political progressiveness and destructive mentality would reached its climax in Mao Zedong’s thought, who in his 1939 essay “On New Democracy”, written in Yanan, sets the principle ‘Destroy the old and establish the new” (pojiu lixin). Imperial, feudal and bourgeois heritage was targeted to open space for a new social reality. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards would accordingly target both the physical as well as the spiritual remains of the old order.

Reactionary culture serves the imperialists and the feudal class and must be swept away. Unless it is swept away, no new culture of any kind can be built up. There is no construction without destruction, no flowing without damming, and no motion without rest; the two are locked in a life-and-death struggle.


Beijing’s Tsinghua University Old Gate (erjiao men), being torn down by students in August 1966

At the end of the Cultural Revolution, ruins appeared again in the cultural scenario to serve the collective reflection on the extreme events that took place in the previous decade and, in a more general vein, the fate of the country. The social body felt, almost literally, ruined and shattered. Ruins—the few existing ruins in Beijing, such as the remaining marbles of the Western section of the Yuanming Yuan or certain sections of the Great Wall—were treated as symbols of a wounded nation that nonetheless strived for recovery and renewal.

concept21 圆明园-2

Performance by Concept 21 (Guannian 21) at the Yuanming Yuan, 1988

With the post-1989 crisis of the modernist project characterized by intellectual idealism and political liberalization, the 1990s were a period of intensification of market-oriented policies and a new social contract based in opportunities for rapid wealth. Those critical with the direction of the country would recur to ruins and rubble: “In the wake of declining New Enlightenment thought”, writes New Left scholar Wang Hui, “what we see are its remnants; on these ruins sits the capitalist market that crosses all national boundaries” (cf. Wang, 2001:187). As Jason McGrath has underscored (2010), the intellectual jargon of the period abounds in ‘ruinous’ language: a risk of collapse, fracturing values and the sense of social totality, shaking of spiritual convictions, etc.

A relevant example is the debate untitled “Ruins in the Wilderness: The Crisis of Literature and the Spirit of Humanism”, in which a group of wrtiers and intellectuals discussed current direction in the artistic and literary fields. For Xu Lin, fo example, the most sensationalist writers (he was thinking of  people like Wang Shuo, who had a great success in the early 1990s) are the direct result of the collapse of the value system (正统价值观念崩溃后的产物) and the ridiculization over the ruins of culture (文化废墟的嘲) (Shanghai Wenxue, 1993). The great novel of the period is Jia Pingwa’s Ruined Capital (Feidu, 1993), the protagonist of which, Zhuang Zhidie, is a polygamous and fetishistic novelist that typifies the spiritual decadence of the times, also reflected in the title’s old walled city, figuratively in ruins.

These discursive ruins found their visual reflection in the rubble that emerged as a result of the massive plans of urban renewal. Motivated by the ambition to universalize a ‘modest welfare’ (xiaokang), as well as by the escalating interests of the real estate sector in connivance with local officials, these projects populated Chinese cities of permanent and ubiquitous traces. The omnipresent chai character meaning ‘to demolish’, which anticipates the demolition of a house thus ‘tatooed’, infiltrated the urban jargon creating a perceptive rendering of the an/globalized reality of China.

chai na-sanlian-huangse

Huang Rui, CHINA-拆那. Three Yellows, 三联 黄色 2010

As we have repeatedly seen in this blog, different artists recovered, as if they were archaeologist of the recent past, material remains including dust, bricks, tiles, rebar; other artists would work around the removed and waste land; others, on the dramatic conditions of those coexisting with the apocalyptic landscapes created by on-going demolition.

Perhaps the tension at work in the photographs of Yang Yongliang, featured in other posts, between past and present, between traditional painting and digital photography, between China and the globalized contemporary world, and two aesthetic experiences (the serene beauty of ancient landscapes versus the shock of post-apocalyptic landscapes), implicitly point to the paradoxes of China’s contemporary progress: at the same time enriching and pauperizing millions of people, at the same time developing xiaokang and fearing the daluan (‘great turmoil’); simultaneously building the ‘China Dream’ and her nightmare.

Sin título

Yang Yongliang, The Moonlight, Waning crescent moon, 2012

Some references

Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts Into Air. Penguin, 1982

Jason McGrath, Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age. Stanford University Press, 2010

Robin Visser, “Spaces of Disappearance: Aesthetic Responses to Contemporary Beijing City Planning”, Journal of Contemporary China, 13:39, 2004

Mao Zedong, “On New Democracy”, via Marxist Internet Archive

Wang Hui, “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity”, in Zhang, Xudong (ed.), Wither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, Duke University Press, 2001

“Ruins in the Wilderness: The Crisis of Literature and the Spirit of Humanism” (旷野上的废墟, 文学和人文精神的危机), Shanghai Wenxue, 189, no.6, 1993, 63-70).

Bo Wang’s 王博 “Heteroscapes”

Bo Wang is a young photographer born in Chongqing and currently based in Brooklyn. After studying Physics at Tsinghua, a renowned Chinese university, he changed direction with a MFA at New York’s School of Visual Arts. After being exhibited in New York, his Heteroscope series took part in the 2011 Lianzhou International Photo Festival.

Imagen 4

These photographs show what Bo terms a “battlefield of transition” (all citations are from Bo’s statement). The lack of rational planning behind the programs of urbanization and renewal has affected historical continuity and has created weird juxtapositions of architectonic styles and functions and “an unpredictable visual texture”. As member of a generation growing in a time when demolition and urban change has been the natural state of things, Bo’s photographs offer a testimony of resistance in the form of residue, the “something puncturing” (here’s a reference to Barthes punctum, I would venture) that questions the narrative of progress behind urban development in China.

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These images focus largely on architecture, and in that sense, Bo’s work has a sort of archaeological nature, as he tries to reveal hidden layers and juxtaposition of temporalities.

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Moreover, the series reflect on the architectural sediments that compose the urban form. As if making this point, one of the images frames the character shi市 for ‘city’ in the rectangular strip of light of a window.

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Imagen 10At the same time, it is no coincidence that in his writing Bo refers to landscape. The new buildings and compounds create new compositions that extend beyond architecture, and into something different than urbanism. Landscape in the Chinese context has a particular meaning and load, engaging with a centuries-long tradition of representation and even projection of subjectivities into the layout of mountains and waters. Though Bo uses the more neuter and modern form jingguan 景观, related to the act of looking, rather than the traditional shanshui 山水 of the mountain-and-water traditional painting, in occasions the cultural dialogue seems quite explicit: either in introducing an element that disturbs the modernist objective gaze with an individual perspective, or in laying out the landscape with an awareness of the distances created by greenery, water and haze.

Imagen 54

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There is finally a group of images that take into account, quite explicitly, the ongoing nature of demolition and construction, with the resulting production of debris and waste. While reminiscent of many other images of similar buildings, Bo flattens the images by the overwhelming presence of these precocious ruins, billboards that herald a dubious announcement of progress and modernization. Their dialogue with the physical, historical context is minimal, across cracks, holes, and lateral stripes of those equally anonymous buildings that frame, as drop scenes, the spectacle of urbanization.

Perversion, fascination, habituation #2

In January 1871, Prussia won the war with France and a four-months siege on Paris ended. A popular uprising then took the city and established the Commune. The resulting clash with the French army was brutal. The Communards started fires along the Seine to stop the regular troops, who in turn fired shells from Versailles, all of which, adding to the destruction caused earlier by the Prussians, severely burned or damaged different and important buildings, like l’Hotel de Ville, the Palais Royal, and the Tuilleries. When all was over (including the mass execution of Communards), Paris had turned into a ruinous landscape.

Imagen 6

Daroy, Panorama of the Fires in Paris during the Commune, May 1871. Oil on canvas (via)

The ruins became an attraction. Returning bourgeois, people from the provinces, and even foreign visitors arrived to Paris to tour the ruins, in occasions with the aid of guides, like the Guide à travers les ruines, by Hans and Blanc. Photographic series (like Jules Andrieu‘s Désastres de la guerre), prints and postcards circulated and were sold in a sudden and booming market of souvenirs.

Imagen 7

In a great article, Daryl Lee analyzes the recourse to the aesthetics of the picturesque in the literary descriptions of these ruins in the works of different French writers like Théophile GautierGeorges Bell or Edmond de Goncourt, and foreigners like Sir William Erskine. With more or less qualms about it, they focused on aesthetic elements such as the atmosphere, shapes, perspectives, and colors. Even though these were fast, almost instantaneous ruins, their formal similarities allowed comparisons with ancient ruins, the aesthetic of which were widely spread and popular at the time: “Nothing blocks the depth of perspective; light freely penetrates into the interior, and its illuminating effect would satisfy a gaze that has contemplated the ruins of Rome and Palmyra”, wrote George Bell in Paris incendie.

Tuileries, after 1871 fire, interior.2

Interior of the Tuileries, 1871. Photographer: Dionis (via Northwestern University repository The Siege and Commune of Paris)

Lee notes how, even the most anti-Communard writers, appalled by the violence, could not help but to enjoy the view. This is particularly evident in Louis Enualt‘s Paris brulé par la commune:

one senses the desolation too acutely not to feel an indeterminate remorse and shame in the face of dilettantish enjoyment, which would be nothing other than impiety […]! But this night, in this silence, in this relative solitude of the grand monument [of the Hotel de Ville], all alone in the middle of this empty and cleared out space, for a moment, the artist murdered the citizen in me, and I could not stop myself from saying under my breath: This is terrible, but it is beautiful!

And in A.M. Blanchecotte‘s Tablettes d’une femme pendant la Commune: “Dare I say it? I love the ruins.” Both the curiosity and guilt these texts betray is a perfect example of the moral implications of the pleasure of ruins (the title of Rose Macaulay‘s classical text on ruins), which Henry James qualified as “slightly perverse”.

As a result of this powerful attraction, the context of the ruins, we might say their conditions of production, are affected, or obliterated altogether, leaving aside questions about the actors, reasons, and meaning of the ruins as images. George Bell, after comparing the ruins of l’Hotel de Ville to Rome, notes that it “fills with profound sadness the heart of the Parisian, of the Frenchman, of the patriot. This sadness obliges you, in spite of yourself, to meditate”, but does not record these meditations. In that regard, certain ‘depolitization’ is at play, an issue very present in the current criticism of ruin porn, the contemporary avatar of the same pleasure of ruins. In the case of Detroit, which has come to epitomize these practices, what these images leave aside is the history, political agency oreconomic reasons behind these ruins: how, for example (and again citing Bryan Finoki), in the 1950s Detroit,

the production of cars and bombers, a constellation of new highways, and a dose of nuclear paranoia encouraged the middle class to flee for the suburbs; by the 1960s, the center of the city was left a warren of ghettos populated by jobless African Americans. In 1967, with joblessness climbing and racism rampant, the city exploded into twelve days of riots—the punctuation of an era of prosperity and the beginning of terminal urban neglect.

Imagen 3

An example of Found Photos in Detroit, a project of Arianna Arcara & Luca Santese which tries to document the decay of the city from within, by resorting to the editing and exhibition of found photographic material

Photography plays a growing role as a source of information and testimony of war and violence. At the same time, as Susan Sontag or Allan Sekulla have noted, it has also contributed to the anaesthetization of pain, and to provide certain assuagement of our moral duty once we have seen a documentary or photo series.


Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar offered a powerful commentary about the complex role of photography of war and catastrophes with his Real Pictures (1995), which only show the description of his photos of the war in Rwanda.

These ideas came to mind when I found the video of the Dutch freelance photographer Tom Daams, stationed in Syria (check “The Unknown Photographer“). Wearing a helmet camera, Daams finds a group of rebels, and records a wonderful scene of the banality of war: while some of the fighters rest, eat a sandwich, or joke with Daams, another soldier invites him to take a photo of a gunman firing a rifle to a hidden enemy. Undoubtedly, Daams’ footage has an important documentary value, but at the same time, I feel it is completely uninformative of the war in Syria in particular: images of the absurd nightmare of people shooting at enemies that speak the same language and hid in similar destroyed corners could and do happen anywhere.


Daams’ video is also a terrible document of utter destruction of Aleppo after more than one year of battle. For all its horror, we realize that all buildings ruin the same: ceilings and floors collapse, covering the area of the house or overflowing onto the street; concrete beams and rebar, harder to topple, give the ruin its inevitable vertical composition. Dust and sand cover all materials, proving uniformity of tone and texture.


John Buckler, The Ruins of Fonthill Abbey, 1825

John Buckler, The Ruins of Fonthill Abbey, 1825 (British Museum)

In the process, we have moved from the picturesqueness of nineteenth-century writers, acknowledged with a mix of pleasure and guilt, to our current morbid lust for always more violent, real-time destruction and death. After thinking about this for some time, I have decided to publish it today, when I learn about the case of the Swedish Photo Awards and the photograph of a dead Haitian girl (see for instance Erik Kim’s post). I can turn my gaze away, decide not to look, not to participate—or at least I can try, I remember how I made a conscious effort NOT to watch the footage of Gaddafi’s lynching, but that it was impossible not  to watch a bit of it. Violence is imposed on us. But, as in the case of the photo in Haiti, or the footage in Syria by Daams, images may have some power; they may, still, stir and mobilize politicians, resources, volunteers. If there is a little chance that an image can alter the way we think about our world and act upon it, am not I being morally-narcissistic if I criticize and turn away my gaze?

Talking, as any discussion of ruins, about Benjamin-Klee’s Angel of History-Angelus Novus, which for the former is an image of progress, “piling wreckage upon wreckage”, the editors of Ruins of Modernity note, with Adorno, that the image is ‘enigmatic’: it “forces the beholder to choose between submitting to catastrophe and resisting it”. Let’s finish then, posing, once more, the same dilema.


Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) and damaged portrait of Walter Benjamin (via Ceasefire)

Ruin gallery #1

Alessandro_Magnasco_-_Banditti_at_Rest_-_WGA13845Alessandro Magnasco, Banditti at Rest (1710)
Eadweard Muybridge, Ruins of a Church, Antigua, Guatemala, 1875Eadweard Muybridge, Ruins of a Church, Antigua, Guatemala (1875)
Jacob Ruisdael 1657 The Jewish CemeteryJacob Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery (1657)
Maerten van Heemskerck,  view of the Vatican Basilica, circa 1536Maerten van Heemskerck,  View of the Vatican Basilica (ca. 1536)
Tacita_Dean_The_Russian_Ending_The_Wreck_of_Worthing_Pier_2001_Photogravure_on_paperTacita Dean, The Russian Ending, The Wreck of Worthing Pier (2001)
roy-lichtenstein-1965-ruins-oil-and-magna-on-canvas-170-x-200-cmRoy Lichtenstein, Ruins (1965)
800px-Vereshchagin-Ruins-in-ChuguchakVasili Vereshchagin, Ruins in Chuguchak (1870)
Egon Schiele, Old Brick House in Carinthia, 1913Egon Schiele, Old Brick House in Carinthia (1913)
Beirut-1991-3Gabriele Basilico, Beirut (1991)
the-ruins-of-the-old-kreuzkirche-dresden-1765 Bernardo Bellotto, Ruins of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche (1765)
Walker_Evans_[Fire Ruins, Scarborough, New York].1930Walker Evans, Fire Ruins, Scarborough, New York (1930)

Building ruins

One of the most characteristic elements of the ruinous landscapes of China’s reform are the lanweilou 烂尾楼 (lit. buildings of rotten finishing), that is, buildings interrupted during construction that have remained as half-finished, freshly built ruins. Lanwei series, by Hong Kong photographer Stanley Wong (aka Anothermountainman or 又一山人) helped popularize images of these buildings in the international circuit of art and architecture (see for instance an article at Domus).
lanwei_0410Anothermountainman, Lanwei 04 / Fly Away / 2006 / China / Guangzhou (via artist’s website)
For those of you familiar with the films of Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯, there is a famous example of lanweilou in a scene of Still Life (三峡好人, 2006). Chongqing’s “Migrants Commemorative Tower” (移民纪念塔, also called “Hua Tower” because it was supposed to resemble the Chinese character 华 hua, denoting the Chinese nation), appears in the background of a conversation of the main characters, only to unexpectedly fly up to the sky as a rocket or weird-shaped flying saucer.
These aborted buildings or whole residential projects point to the real estate boom that has accompanied the reform period, in which land has become the major source of capital accumulation for local governments (The Great Urban Transformation, You-Tien Hsing, 2010). As opportunities and returns of real estate investment were high, many risked to beginning projects even when funding or authorization had not been secured.
We are now witnessing a similar phenomenon in different European countries, particularly in those where the over-heated economy of the 1990s depended largely on a real estate bubble. ‘Ghost estates‘ in Ireland, comprising over 230.000 empty houses in 2011, reflect the over-construction that channeled the economic surplus before the recession.
Perhaps more severe is the situation of Spain, where real estate was the main economic drive for years. The reasons are diverse: the opportunity for the achievement of the middle-classes’ dream of owning a house, optimal employment rates, great tax revenues, and, as courts are growingly uncovering, a tight connivance of investors, construction companies and politicians who would approve fitting new land regulations and turned agricultural land into urban areas. With the debt & sub-prime mortgage crisis, real estate development in Spain came to an abrupt clash, interrupting hundreds of on-going projects and dragging along the entire economy.
Architect Julia Schulz-Dornburg has documented over 60 of such aborted projects for her project Modern Ruins, a Topography of Profit, which includes a book and also circulates as an exhibition. The contrast of the photographs with the accompanying texts, which Schulz-Dornburg has copied from real estate and developers brochures, is fascinating.
imagen2-copy The caption on the image reads “Willing to provide the highest wellbeing for our clients, we have created houses to provide you and your family with a litte paradise”.

Similarly, the topographic inventory provides maps and aerial photographs that contrast the intended construction area with the reality. As for the photographs of different residential, touristic and entertainment projects, and while the project has a marked critical side, the author cannot scape an aesthetic exploration of the abandoned sites.

imagen8-copy“The compound includes luxury apartments and is guarded by 24-hours CCTV”

It is interesting to note how the aesthetic fascination with ruins is able to bypass all discursive or critical understanding of the sites photographed. While references, in the book’s diverse essays (one by philosopher/writer Rafael Argullol, an specialist in the aesthetics of Romanticism), repeatedly engage with notions such as the sublime, the relationship of man and nature, etc., a crucial aesthetic debt is with Robert Smithson‘s  pioneering project Hotel Palenque (1969), with which the experimental artist contributed to expand our awareness to the potentiality as ruins of derelict, abandoned and decayed buildings, regardless their architectural value, intended function, or construction materials.

generali_smithsonRobert Smithson, Hotel Palenque (1969)