Frozen in fear, thawed in desolation

Artist's haunting photographs capture time-lapse images after Chernobyl nuclear disaster

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In 1985, Don Delillo wrote White Noise, a novel about an airborne toxic event and the evacuation of a town in the U.S. Midwest. "Only a catastrophe gets our attention," he wrote. "We want them, we need them, we depend on them, as long as they happen somewhere else."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/09/2014 (2918 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 1985, Don Delillo wrote White Noise, a novel about an airborne toxic event and the evacuation of a town in the U.S. Midwest. “Only a catastrophe gets our attention,” he wrote. “We want them, we need them, we depend on them, as long as they happen somewhere else.”

Only catastrophes, he claimed, can cut through the “brain fade” of our emotionally stunted and privileged lives.

Delillo’s claim is worth thinking about, but it is only one of the reasons why David McMillan’s photographs of the Chernobyl exclusion zone are so compelling. In 2011, the 25th anniversary of Ukraine’s nuclear disaster, news magazines such as Time produced many images of present-day Chernobyl. But McMillan’s photos are different. To his knowledge, he was the first to photograph the area with artistic, rather than journalistic concerns. On Friday, Oct. 3 at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café, McMillan will talk about what it is like to wander alone through an abandoned, radioactive city, but will also discuss how his artistic sensibility differs from that of a photojournalist.

SUPPLIED PHOTOS David McMillan's Flags in a Stairwell, Pripyat 1994.

McMillan’s photographs focus on the city of Pripyat. At one time it was home to 45,000 people, employees of the nuclear power plant and their families. The day after the accident, its citizens were forced to flee levels of radiation that were higher than hundreds of Nagasaki and Hiroshima nuclear explosions combined.

In McMillan’s photographs of an elementary school, tiny plasticine sculptures sit on the shelf exactly where the kindergarten children placed them on that April 1986 morning. In another classroom, a bas-relief portrait of Lenin lies cracked and crumbled on the floor, a symbol for the decline of the Soviet Union.

But McMillan has no political or dogmatic agenda. “Pripyat resembles Pompeii in the sense that its ruins give us information about an earlier culture,” he says. “The idea that we can destroy ourselves is implicit in the work but it isn’t the point of the photographs. There’s a continuum with subject matter at one end and form at the other. I’m interested in Pripyat as a subject but also in light, colour, and all the other formal options for making a picture.”

The way McMillan’s photos describe the ruin makes such visual impact that it is almost possible to forget its terrifying significance. Paint peels in enormous pastel flakes. Curtains hang in limp, decomposing shreds. Light spills sideways from windows. The 2011 photo Flags In A Stairwell is not just a photo of disintegrating Soviet symbols. It is also a piece of abstract art, where shape, colour and texture interact. For those who know art history, it even bears some resemblance to the smudgy expressionism of Jasper Johns’ paint and fabric collages.

The effect of a McMillan photograph has a lot to do with what cultural theorists have termed the “esthetics of disaster,” when visual beauty or intrigue can be found in a horrific event. Aric Mayer, an artist who took pictures of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, described the emptied, destroyed New Orleans as having a curious esthetic balance. “It was a very real ‘unreal’ world,” he wrote. “It was neither nature nor city, but some kind of hybrid world where the two were overlaid to create another world entirely.”

The same sentiment can be applied to McMillan’s Pripyat. But what sets his photos apart is his commitment to documenting how those overlaid worlds have changed over time. McMillan has travelled to Pripyat 18 times since 1994, often photographing the same scenes again and again.

In his photo View of the Power Plant from Pripyat Rooftop, taken in 1994, it is still possible to see parking lots, sidewalks and roads. In the 2011 version, those open spaces have been engulfed by forest. Trees now push their way up through hotel-room floors, and as the years pass it becomes harder to see swing sets and slides through layers of foliage. As we look at McMillan’s photographs our eyes scan for changes, trying to locate what is still recognizable. It is an unnerving experience, allowing us to become strangely intimate with a place we’ve never been.

Flags in a Stairwell, Pripyat, 2013.

Pripyat is far away. But it is easy, within the imagination, to place ourselves there. We have our own memories, after all, of school rooms, public pools, fairgrounds. It is a city, at least in McMillan’s photographs, where light abounds. It is silent, and still, far from our harried lives. If Delillo is right, and we need such images to help us feel, then through McMillan’s work we can feel our own transience, can watch all traces of ourselves slowly disappear.

 

Sarah Swan is a Winnipeg artist and writer. She will host Art Talk/Art Walk at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café on Friday at 6 p.m. Call 204-697-7069 for tickets to the event.

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