Exhibition: “The Toxic Camera and Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)”

Exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery :
Jane and Louise Wilson’s The Toxic Camera and Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a
Vacuum); also featuring Vladimir Shevchenko’s Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult
Weeks film (1987)

My first reaction to an arts exhibition about Chernobyl and Pripyat (the workers’ nearby abandoned town) was of disgust. The Chernobyl disaster as art? Distasteful voyeurism more like. Still I was at the Gallery anyway, so after meandering around the other pieces of work by the same artists downstairs, I went upstairs.

You need about 1½ hour to fully take in the displays and I would recommend you start with gallery 10, on the left of the centre staircase. Surrounded by darkness, the only object on show is a bronze cast of a 35mm Konvas Avtomat similar to Shevchenko’s camera. As you gradually make sense of its presence as a reminder of the footage taken within days of the disaster by the filmmaker, you are told that the original was so radioactive that it had to be buried as toxic waste. Your mind starts racing.. access in the early days? Who was this man? What about the crew and people involved? What did they see? What film is this? …

Well the film is showing on a small TV screen at the back of the gallery with subtitles. As a first hand record of the seriousness of the disaster it was suppressed at first, but released after Shevchenko’s death of radiation in 1987. You can sit through its 40 minutes or so, transfixed by the aerial views of the plant, the radioactive spots on the film but mostly by the people, workers, inhabitants, children evacuated and volunteers working there. There is a pro-communist slant to some of the comments, but what you see is extraordinary: members publicly excluded from the party in shame for having run away, letters from 10 year olds offering their blood and houses to the victims, men leaving their jobs to help decontaminating land, pouring concrete on the reactor or building new villages for the evacuees… solidarity.

After that there’s the artists’ own film The Toxic Camera, on a large screen in the centre of the gallery. A booming voice-over gives an account of the original film crew, and the radioactivity on the film. It questions human impact, and the ruins we are left with as we are presented with footage from Kiev exclusion zone and Orford Ness’ MoD disused testing site. More desolated photos of Pripyat’s ruins are exhibited in the following gallery. The Atomgrad set of works is printed in large scale, and as you stand in front of each of them, you are in the very rooms, taking in the story and scale of each location: here a kindergarten, here a swimming pool… This has ceased to be art, it is a social comment on man’s temporary agitation yet leaving invisible permanent footprints.

I stood up alone in the dark watching the film for 18 minutes again. Iodine-131’s half-life is 8.1 days, Plutonium-241, 14 year; Strontium-90, 29 years; Caesium-137, 30 years; Americium-241, 430 years. 18 minutes only to remember the radiated, the ill, the dead and the brave, the destruction, the helplessness and the panic, but yet trees grow, and species live on.

They say art should provoke a reaction. The weight of this show well worth the visit is evident, but you need time to absorb it. This is not art as entertainment: it relates to real-life issues permanently on the agenda and by generating personal reflection, it reaches its objective and its public.

Laurence Menhinick

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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1 Response to Exhibition: “The Toxic Camera and Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)”

  1. Thanks for finally writing about >Exhibition: The Toxic
    Camera and Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) | manchester climate monthly <Liked it!

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