Ruin and Metamorphosis
Among the many illuminations offered by Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures was that of the artist’s primary function to ‘notice things’. The implication being that unless an artwork leads us to notice something we had not before been aware of or considered it is not really art. It may be great décor or design, but it is not strictly speaking ‘art’. Grayson did not add that caveat but it surely follows that if we are not prompted to think about meaning, the artefact however skilfully contrived is essentially a piece of artisanal craftsmanship, however admirable.
In the same vein, Goethe’s dictum ‘there are no new ideas’ reminds us that originality in art is mostly about drawing an audience’s attention to something that may be familiar but which the artist expresses in a way they have not previously encountered.
This line of thought can of course lead to over-dependence on shocking the audience. Dead animals, bad language and other assaults on convention may or may not be art but they are often highly controversial; which is often their primary purpose in our media-hungry age.
Authors and writers in general may also be judged on these criteria – although journalism as art or craft is a tougher call to make.
Geoff Nicholson is definitely an artist. Ruins as a theme or preoccupation are hardly new. Urban collapse and rural decay are commonplace subjects enough for visual and narrative accounts and dystopian fiction. But as someone addicted to walking and as a remarkably accomplished prose artist, Nicholson brings his own eclectic, allusive style to an absorbing tour of ruins that have attracted his notice.
His reflections on ruins encompass for the most part the quirkier, and hence little regarded relics of humanity’s shifting occupation of the planet’s surface. His preference is less for the set-piece and preserved than the transient and on-going processes of ruination. As he himself points out these are often, although not exclusively found in urban spaces called ‘edge lands’ and he credits an environmental activist called Marion Shoard for giving the term its currency – recently explored to great effect by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts and Underworld alumnus Karl Hyde in (separate) but eponymous works.
The book’s artistry and charm lies however in the companionable, knowledgeable (but never didactic) ease with which the author takes the reader’s arm and shares his walks and ideas. It is no mean feat to link Turner and Ruskin with Albert Speer and Hitler as philosophers of the ruin. Ruskin was concerned that ruins should be portrayed as more than ‘picturesque’ and Speer persuaded Hitler that buildings should be designed for grandeur even in collapse. That Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings were often dreadfully badly built also provides unkind delight.
Geographically Nicholson opens with Jaywick in Essex and ends with the Salton Sea in California. En route he reflects on Samuel Beckett in Alcatraz and H.G.Wells in Woking. He walks in more well-known places containing obscure ruination such as Sheffield and Hollywood. His guided tour invites us to look and think differently about civilisation and our time in it. As he writes: ‘If the world contains ruins, it cannot itself be wholly ruined. There’s consolation in that’
Geoff Nicholson, Walking in Ruins, Harbour Books, paperback, 238 pages, ISBN 978 190512820 4, £12.50