In: Post Soviet Photo
Nadav Kander | Chernobyl, Half Life, 2004December 23, 2022
Nadav Kander | Chernobyl, Half Life, 2004
I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life,
to our loneliness together;
and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that have betrayed us,
to dead-cold, pitiless eyes,
and to the hard realities:
that the world is brutal and coarse,
that God in fact has not saved us.
(Anna Akhmatova, I drink to our ruined house…, 1934)
I am old enough to remember when Chernobyl happened, and like many events it has become larger in the public consciousness as the years pass. In some ways, my time as a teenager had numerous events that have shaped history, as I also remember being in my high school history class and discussing the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened a few years later.
One can’t speak of the fall of the Soviet empire without citing Chernobyl: Emmanuel LePage, in the graphic novel Springtime in Chernobyl (2012), asserts that ‘the disaster in Chernobyl is the first nail in the coffin of the Soviet Bloc.’ It is not unintentional, I think, that this metaphor is employed after an earlier passage where a widow describes the elaborate entombment of her husband’s irradiated body, like a pharaoh’s sarcophagus to hell instead of heaven…
It has become a touchstone for many artists in a variety of mediums. Some use this disaster as a means to a larger conversation. Others remind us of Stephen King’s Blind Wille reminiscing about his time in Vietnam (from Hearts in Atlantis), admitting it had much to “teach him, back in the years before it became a political joke and a crutch for hack filmwriters.”
In writing about his series Chernobyl, Half Life (2004), Nadav Kander offers the following:
“Reactor No.4 at Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Station exploded in 1986 leaving the surrounding area uninhabitable for many hundreds of years to come. It happened to be the 20th Anniversary since the explosion when I gained access as an artist to visit Chernobyl, photographing the deserted spaces in what was once a model Soviet City.
Home to more than 40,000 people, the apartments, schools and hospitals that were hastily left following the controversial evacuation are stark reminders of past lives, leaving a disturbing sense of quiet. An uneasiness that I had never previously experienced.
There is a great beauty in a very real way to be found as the poignancy of human suffering almost hangs in the air. I found myself with a familiar feeling; best described as the feeling when walking through an overgrown cemetery on a drizzly day, but what I was looking at was far from familiar.
Having grown up with stories of relations of mine including my Father with his family that were suddenly evacuated during the second world war, I could not help but feel quite profoundly shocked as well and at the same time wonder what it must have felt like to suddenly leave your home and be transported to an unknown destination, suspecting that the near future would probably bring severe ill health due to being exposed to large doses of radiation. Little is known about the radio-active affects on the people of this city as the population were dispersed all over Russia. If there was a gathering of data by the government, it was never reported.”
I’ve selected a few of the images from this series, and most of them are focused upon spaces that would be set aside for children. Kindergarten Golden Key, Sleeping Room evokes a memory of visiting Spring Hurlbutt’s The Garden of Sleep / Le Jardin du Sommeil, which was also a contrasting beautiful space to meditate upon the death and loss of children, and both provide a focus for grief.
With work like this, there is a danger of the glorification of destruction: what one of my critical brethren has called ‘ruin porn.’ Kander, however, with his choice of sites has privileged the people – their absences are very clear, in the scenes he depicts – so that amidst all of the geo political discourse, humans and our humanity is not forgotten, willfully or otherwise….
Akhmatova’s words from half a century earlier act as a fine narration of these images: as an addendum to this pick, I’d also suggest the series Chernobyl, as it also focused upon the reality of Pripyat residents, situated within a larger historical narrative (much like Ahkamatova’s poems do).
And, with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, some historians are reminding us of past events like the Holodomor – and in some ways, Chernobyl fits within this – where an ’empire’ exhibits cruelty and disregards humanity, whether through malevolence or ignorance, and sometimes I see Chernobyl through this lens, as well….
There is a surfeit of cultural commemoration or interpretation of this event and some is better than others. Kander’s work is quietly unsettling, even after all these decades.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Elena Chernyshova | Days of Night / Nights of Day, 2012-2013December 8, 2022
Elena Chernyshova | Days of Night / Nights of Day, 2012-2013
‘I was with my people then, there, where my people, unfortunately, were.’
(Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, 1935 – 1961, writing of her times in the soviet gulag)
When I lived in Saskatoon, an acquaintance who’d spent time in Eastern Europe once commented that that city in winter was like Siberia, but without the cachet of being that place (which exists as much in our imaginations as it does in reality, one might say – as a ‘great part of the imagination of the world is attached to that site’), nor with architecture that was anything but a failed brutalism (this was during a period with the ‘economic boom’ in Saskatoon where a number of heritage buildings were lost and the banal taupe of others rose like mottled angular tumours….)
Elena Chernyshova’s work is aesthetically stunning: not just for the evocative quality of the images, but also for the scenes they present to us, that seem to blend exotica and danger, a chronicle of sites that remind us of the irrelevance of humanity in the face of nature.
But her notes and comments bring the human element back, as this is not just a ‘pretty’ image, but a site of – of course – contested narratives, that looks back to the history of the USSR and some of the ideas of industrialization and ‘progress’ that have human costs.
Chernyshova’s own words are a powerful adjunct to her lens: “Days of Night / Nights of Day is about the daily life of the inhabitants of Norilsk. Norilsk is a mining city, with a population of more than 170,000. It is the northernmost city (100,000+ people) in the world. The average temperature is -10° C and reaches lows of -55° C in the winter. For two months of the year, the city is plunged into polar night when there are zero hours of sunlight.
The entire city, its mines and its metallurgical factories were constructed by prisoners of the nearby gulag, Norillag, in the 1920s and 30s. 60% of the present population is involved with the city’s industrial processes: mining, smelting, metallurgy and so on. The city sits on the world’s largest deposit of nickel-copper-palladium. Nearly half of the world’s palladium is mined in Norilsk. Accordingly, Norilsk is the 7th most polluted city in the world.
This documentary project aims to investigate human adaptation to extreme climate, environmental disaster and isolation. The living conditions of the people of Norilsk are unique, making them an incomparable subject for such a study.”
Chernyshova offers the following about the image of monumental architecture (with a blue suffusing light): The construction plan of Norilsk was established in 1940, by architects imprisoned in the nearby Gulag. The idea was to create an ideal city. The most “ancient” buildings are constructed in the Stalinist style. The next step of construction happened in the 60s, when the prevailing method in the USSR was to use pre-built panels.
Her other writings also allude to the disputed, if not adversarial, stories that meet and intersect in Days of Night / Nights of Day. The scene with the car and hazy clouds the colour of sulfur has the following notation: In the summer, there is a period when the sun doesn’t go under the horizon. This continues from the end of May till the end of July. It is accompanied by good weather and pleasant temperatures. Around 3 am, while the city sleeps, it is still illuminated by the sun. The city seems like a ghost town, emptied of its inhabitants.
One of the images I’ve included from Chernyshova’s series is unlike the others: and its difference helps to offer insight into the whole. Again, Chernyshova’s voice must be borrowed: Anna Vasilievna Bigus, 88, [who] spent ten years of her youth in the Gulag. At age 19, she was separated from her family and sent into the Arctic Circle. “The only joy we could have in Gulag was singing. We sang a lot. And this gave us the strength to survive…” Her daughter became a music teacher and her grandchildren sing in opera.
The complete series (produced with the support of The Jean-Luc Lagardère Foundation) can be seen here and a feature from LensCulture (where Chernyshova offers some words about many of the images I’ve shared here, that offer more nuance and depth to her vision) can be enjoyed here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More