Contemporary Ruins: symposium and exhibition

Ghislain Potriquet's picture
December 9, 2021 to December 10, 2021
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Architecture and Architectural History, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Canadian History / Studies, Literature

“Contemporary Ruins” : symposium and exhibition

 December 9-10, 2021

 University of Strasbourg

Languages : English, French

Confirmed keynote speakers: Isabelle Hayeur (photographer, Canada) and Miles Orvell (professor of American studies and historian of photography, Temple University, Philadelphia)

Organizers: Emmanuel Béhague, Gwen Cressman, Hélène Ibata, Monica Manolescu

Full program available here:

The combination of landscape and ruin is as old as the idea of landscape itself. At times a source of nostalgia, at other times a source of aesthetic pleasure and creativity, the ruin has long been associated with the idea of balance between nature and culture (Simmel), as well as with the cycles of history. Its aesthetic transformations through time have reflected the tensions between human temporalities and those of the natural world, while offering changing responses to the latter. In the late eighteenth century, the fashion for the picturesque made it possible to blend the vestiges of past civilisations within harmonious natural settings, using them as agreeable visual motifs – albeit filled with nostalgia. Romantic artists saw the motif of the fragment as a means to articulate destructive and creative forces.  Today, however, the aesthetic value of the ruin, and the fascination it continues to exert, have become more problematic. This is all the more the case as the motif of destruction is no longer to be found exclusively in human constructions, but in natural environments themselves, ruined by industrial action, unable to offer an image of permanence as a counterpoint to the history of humanity or of promising the return to a natural state as was the case with the picturesque ruin. As the vestiges of the natural world resist the possibility of aesthetic play, new modalities of representation are emerging. While some artists choose to confront the viewer with an irreparably damaged or insidiously polluted world (British artists Keith Arnatt, Tacita Dean, Jane and Louise Wilson, Canadian photographer Isabelle Hayeur, as well as German artists Jordi Antonia Schlösser and Thomas Struth come to mind), others question the possibility of an aesthetic assessment of the landscape mutations of the industrial era (as is the case in the work of British artist Darren Almond, or American photographers Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Richard Misrach, who record the lasting inscriptions of industrial, mining and petroleum activities).

Our symposium aims to examine the meaning of ruin in contemporary art, while questioning the possible evolution of aesthetic reflection about landscape in order to encompass environmental destruction. Can the artist, as in the past, find inspiration in the ruins of the world, and see in them the fragments of new compositions, or should they inevitably remind us of reality by confronting us with a bruised natural world, pervaded by the signs of a destructive human presence? How can aesthetic reflection about landscape articulate or be associated with a more ethical assessment of humanity’s responsibility in the current environmental crisis? These are the questions that will be explored during this symposium.

Presentations can focus on industrial and mining ruins, degraded natural environments, Land Art, or site-specific art and its use of wastelands or transitional territories, conceived as practices or seen through artistic media such as photography, painting or video. They may also examine the changing theory of landscape, in its aesthetic, but also geographical or political dimension.


Dillon, B. (ed.) (2011): Ruins: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Dillon, B. (2014): Ruin Lust. London: Tate Gallery Publishing.

Hell, J. and A. Schönle (eds.) (2009): Ruins of Modernity. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Macaulay, R. (1953): The Pleasure of Ruins. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Makarius, M. (2011): Ruines. Paris: Flammarion.

Orvell, Miles (2021): Empire of Ruins. American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Simmel, G. ([1911] 1958): “The Ruin”, in “Two Essays”, The Hudson Review, vol. 11:3/Autumn 1958, pp. 371-385.

Stewart, S. (2020): The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Contact Info: 

Prof. Gwen Cressman

Contact Email: