After the pleasure of ruins

‘Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings.’ Rose Macaulay

Izabela Pluta’s series After the pleasure of ruins reworks a compendium of 153 photographic images taken during the 1960s by wanderer and photographer Roloff Beny and later used to illustrate the book Pleasure of Ruins by the poet and mystic Rose Macaulay. Macaulay’s text, originally published in 1953, is a combination of densely evocative prose, history and romantic travelogue that interrogates ruins as artefacts of sublime experience. It guides the reader through a picturesque contemplation of nostalgic decay, crumbling monuments and haunting historical remains. 

In the book Macaulay’s ornamental writing style is paired with Beny’s poignant, if lifelessly reproduced, black and white photographs of extraordinary sites around the globe. The images encyclopaedically represent millennia of diverse civilisations and cultures, including Petra (Jordan); Angkor Wat (Cambodia); Machu Picchu (Peru); Leptis Magna (Libya), Chichen Itza (Mexico); Persepolis (Iran); Tintern Abbey (Wales); and Baalbek (Lebanon). Beny travelled to each of the locations to explore and capture the scenes so expressively rendered in Macaulay’s intricate text. He self-published the illustrated version of the book in 1977, almost twenty years after Macaulay’s death.

Izabela Pluta chanced upon the Pleasure of Ruins in a second-hand bookshop in Sydney, while researching the history of mock ruins and confected ‘eye catcher’ garden features for her PhD. She found the publication curiously eccentric, neither a ‘factual account, rigorously academic nor a work of fiction’,[1] and was fascinated to see that the accompanying images were added posthumously. At once intrigued and perplexed, she noted Macaulay and Beny’s evident ardour for the ruinous and their shared pleasure in aesthetics of memory and loss, and in the fading forms and relics of exotic cultures and fallen empires.

Continuing her interest in processes of translation, mutation and fragmentation in photography, Pluta re-imagined Beny’s project for After the pleasure of ruins. The series comprises a single row of photographic plates that collectively span 30 metres around the gallery walls, each plate coated with opaque bronze pigment applied using a photo-silkscreen transfer process. Every image from the book is covered with the metallic trace of another. The first image in the publication is printed over the last, with the artist repeating this procedure of pairing and layering images from opposite ends of the manuscript, one over the other, while moving sequentially inwards, disrupting the beginning and the end and crafting new imageries and narratives. Through this process Pluta produces positive and negative visual fields, that move in and out of legibility—simultaneously investigating and deconstructing the source imagery, the medium of photography, our faculties of perception and the notion of storytelling itself.

The alluring surfaces and fields shimmer with a longing and gilded desire that pointedly disrupt the fixed images beneath them and suggest an exotic decorative overlay, or a type of cultural blindness or loss of vision. Through this simple gesture Pluta creates highly allusive, subtle and complex political spaces that hint at the way in which images are used to construct, affirm, transform and sometimes limit or obscure our sense of the world and its ever changing complexity. Her gesture is one of claiming, reworking and transforming Beny’s imagery in a suggestively ruinous act of ornate violence.

When the artist first viewed Beny’s photographs, she was struck by how often these highly recognisable and unique sites reminded her of yet other places. They were identifiable locations that at the same time could be anywhere. Deep in shadow, narrow in tonal range and closely cropped, Beny’s images operate in dynamic layers and composites that variously cohere and dissolve into pattern, shifting into studies in composition and form.

In contrast to this fluid time and space continuum, Pluta’s pages, or ‘book work’ as she refers to it, is presented in the gallery with what the artist conceives as a horizontal datum line—a reference to a baseline measurement or point of reference. In this instance this line is demarcated by a painted section across the wall that matches the tone of the gallery floor. Through this defining coordinate Pluta aims to anchor the work to the ground and ‘re-orient the various subjects back to site.[2]

To accompany After the pleasure of ruins Pluta has produced an installation consisting of a draped printed fabric that alludes to the dense and tangled thicket morphology of the invasive lantana. Titled Reversal, the fabric is printed with a photograph that was taken in the Bellangry State Forest on the land of the Gadang people during a residency. Colonising a gallery wall the introduced species seems to be enveloping the architecture, suggesting a complex unsettled interplay between nature and culture, history, time and place.

 Melissa Keys
Curator of Buxton Contemporary, the University of Melbourne, 2019

[1] Izabela Pluta in in correspondence with the author, 7 March 2019
[2] ibid. 

Published in the catalogue, IZABELA PLUTA: REVERSAL, to accompany the exhibition at The Glasshouse Regional Gallery, Port Macquarie NSW