Art in Ruins

Although Pop art found architectural parallels and echoes in the work of the Archigram group and of Robert Venturi, the example of Andy Warhol would seem an elusive model for architectural practice. “Warholism,” one might say, is an attitude of mind rather than a method of design, a gaze at the environment rather than an intervention in it. Nevertheless, a gaze forms attitudes, and attitudes become form. In general, it might be said that too many architects are quick on the draw and blind to what is simply there. Hanna Vowles and Glynn Banks are architectural artists; they are architects who represent what is “there” in the average scan of contemporary urban life. They call their practice “Art In Ruins,” denoting by it all that was once local, authentic, immediate, and vivid, as opposed to the manufactured, standard, alienated, and universal. The title is ironic; they do not deal in ideal recoveries of old skills and crafts, but in condensed tableaux of their opposite: the clichéd emblems and trite artifacts of lives led entirely within the ambit of devalued signs and con confused values. Their works are not simply moralities on kitsch, however. Avant-garde art and architecture as well as uplifting monuments and prestige technology are implicated in a general entropy of significant value. Their so-called “Domestic Arrangements” make triads out of Modernism, monuments, and kitsch, showing each feeding off the others in a circuit they call “vampire value.”

A typical piece arrays three items in a slick Minimalist installation, but the array also resembles a window dressing, a museum display, or a domestic wall arrangement. This elision of categories is repeated in the items comprising each triad: a cheap ornament, a popular symbol which doubles as a “pure form,” and a painting in black on black of an architectural monument. Each of these fails in some way that, taken together, suggests an all-around collapse of confidence in value distinctions. The effect is more tendentious and allegorical than in Warhol, but that is possibly because Banks and Vowles seem more interested in history than fame, and more interested in the end of public meaning in “tourism” than in the end of the individual subject in “stardom”: “In the city of the future,“ they might say, ”everything will be historical for 15 minutes."

Acquisition and tourism are versions of, even substitutes for, each other, rather as kitsch and avant-garde both symptomize a global placelessness. In Art In Ruins, these observations evince a wry humor. On display at Marlene Eleini was Sellajield: Plage Blanc (all works, 1989), a wall-size photograph of the Sellafield nuclear plant (which has leaked radiation onto the beach on which it stands), hung with luminescent plastic garments from the “Plage Blanc” range of beach wear. The latter are, in fact, not to be worn on the beach at all but in the artificial paradises of fluorescent discotheques. Sellafield, meanwhile, has turned itself into a tourist attraction in order to improve its public reputation. A similar format is used for On Line, one of two works on display at the Showroom. Here the wall photograph is of James Stirling’s Stuttgart museum, looking like a ruined nuclear power plant and hung with tourists’ backpacks. Banks and Vowles are aware of the kinship of their work with window display and sales design, and play upon it. Buying Time combines the logo and cool style of the Next clothing shops with a framed photo of Richard Rogers’ Lloyds building—headquarters for one of the most successful financial institutions in London and an ideal career site for the average Next customer. But the installation also parodies the work of the West German artist Günther Förg, cross-wiring high culture and fast commerce. Warhol began in commercial art and transited (while short-circuiting) the gulf to fine art. Perhaps the secret destiny of Art In Ruins is to move in the opposite direction, but to keep on shorting the system.

Brian Halton