The April 1986 nuclear disaster of Chernobyl remains an infamous date throughout history. From this, the Whitworth Art Gallery’s latest exhibition of the works of British artists Jane and Louise Wilson seek to entice the attention and imaginations of students from a variety of academic programmes. One of the main focuses of the exhibit centres upon the Wilson’s exploration of the recent obsession of the 1986 Chernobyl power station disaster and the abandoned nuclear exclusion zone city of Pripyat.
The works include a premiere of the Wilson’s new short film ‘The Toxic Camera’, a factual dramatisation which takes its inspiration from the later reflections of the Soviet filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko’s camera crew, who were granted access to the area to document the aftermath. Taking into account the recent proliferation in the historical study of social memory, ‘The Toxic Camera’ offers an intriguing medium with which to gauge how Shevchenko and his contemporaries considered human impact upon the earth. It also further explores the jeopardy of their own mortality posed by the radiation they willingly entered. Visitors are made aware of what the Wilson’s term to be ‘‘radiation’s sadistic rapture’’ by revelations including the death of Shevchenko’s camera and film technician. Shevchenko never visited the site but his contact with the polluted materials alone was sufficient enough to induce radiation poisoning.
The complementary screening of Shevchenko’s ‘Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks’ is also enlightening in the field of social memory and studies of patriotism and the suppression of knowledge. Twenty six years on from the disintegration of ‘Reactor 4’ media coverage and popular commemoration rarely offer insight into the ‘decontamination programs’ which relied upon the military and a 30,000 plus force of volunteers from across the USSR. Through Shevchenko and the Wilson’s films we can extrapolate the sense of collective responsibility felt by large portions of the population in the wake of the disaster.
The Wilson’s ‘Atomgrad: Nature Abhors a Vacuum’ is a powerful series of photographic prints of the once prosperous Pripyat. It is left in its current state, as nature returns to reclaim the land once occupied by leisure centres and theatres. The image of a decimated lower school classroom with books still on desks is an enduring image capturing the fragility of human life and civilisation. It seeks to serve as a historical testament to the dangers of atomic energy. The prints and film screenings are framed by the haunting crackle of Geiger meters and the recurring use of yardsticks which the Wilson’s have employed to illustrate the desolation and emptiness of the exclusion zone.
Despite the artistic backgrounds of the installations in this exhibit students of history and other disciplines should not be deterred from visiting this moving and interesting interpretation of a significant moment in twentieth century history. Further complementary events to this exhibit will be running in November and January including ‘‘Apocalypse Now: thinking about ruins and radiation’’, a seminar which will feature Dr Paul Dobraszczyk of the University of Manchester’s SAHC.
The exhibition will be open until 27th January 2013 at the Whitworth Art Gallery.