Jane and Louise Wilson’s “Atomgrad (Nature Abhors A Vacuum)” has been an interesting experience and has raised, from talking to others, notions of dark tourism, utopianism, and the politics of surveillance. However, more interesting is exploring how this exhibition communicates politically as a space between its own forensic, detached aesthetic and the material history that it is based upon. We must look for what lies between what it excavates and what it presents as threat.
Threat operates as the space between our own perceptions and the world that is presented to us by the society that we live in. To borrow from Michel Foucault, who wrote extensively about power and its development in our society, we recognise this threat “because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population”. Our dreams and fears are guided as a fear of the end of Britishness, the indiscriminate annihilation of millions by nuclear bomb, or the decimation of the planet from over-enthusiastic exploitation. Some of these themes run throughout this current exhibition in supportive but also problematic ways.
“Atomgrad” presents us with the threat of the future and not the forensics of the event. We are shown a nuclear threat that exists only through its own event’s continual postponement. The event’s absence acts as a warning against utopianism and its postponement is conveyed as the contrast of these photographs in relation to the rodchenko-like sculpture situated in the middle. The sculpture is a dream and a hope and all that is left around it is the dead wood and ghosts of the photographs. We are told we must confront the future as a mark of its own obsolence. The future is portrayed in these photographs as a threat that can destroy not just yourself, but also the entire social order that underpins how you live. It will annihilate your friends, family, work, roads, communal areas. The only things that can be contained by the future is traces and details – not the people.
It is the nuclear threat’s failure to be constituted as an event in its whole that betrays its power. If the nuclear event were to manifest then it would signify our own annihilation. Therefore, it must always be taken at an arms length and constructed from the trace events that signify it, such as the aftermath of Chernobyl. The forensic, detached construction of these photographs serve as an attempt to reconstruct a narrative and meaning from the detritus and waste. Rather than attempt to reconstruct the nuclear event, it exposes and plays upon the nuclear threat.
In the CSI tv franchise, the detectives would take a look at an empty room and swab it for fingerprints, dust, blood and so on. From these hints of the murder that took place in a space, they could reconstruct the entire event, however improbably, through a variety of dramatic contrivances and so catch the murderer. Like the detectives in CSI, the artists attempt to re-order and re-symbolise the space – formulating a new diagram that is only part-based on the atomic age and the Cold War. We are not reconstructing the event, but reconstructing the narrative that leads up to it. With this reconstruction comes all the new associations that our contemporary context from the C21st has surrounded us with.
We are witness to the accumulation of time just as we are witness to the accumulation of clutter in a closet. Think about what is in a closet – a toolbox, an old lamp, crockery from the 1960s, an umbrella, old coats, ornaments. The lamp may be in a style that was out of fashion but is now seen as fashionable again, and so we now associate it with the other objects that are now in fashion. These other objects are associated with certain publicly fashionable people and all other objects and attitudes associated with their lifestyle. We can determine that the object has accumulated a whole nexus of associations that did not exist at the inception of its design.
Time is disjointedly rearranged to the objects and rooms we are witness to, refusing to move, and building up till the meanings that lay beneath the time that has passed have long since been mythologised and commodified. Nobody remembers the protests and criticism against the Eiffel Tower by the arts sectors and workers. The novelist Leon Bloy once labelled it “a truly tragic streetlamp”. Today, after generations spent accumulating the myths of Paris, its silhouette is shorthand for love. Floodlit at night, its cast-iron bolts and girders represent the midnight promenade of lovers rather than the hands of workers. From its myth come the postcards, a symbol for films set in Paris and 2-inch high Eiffel tower models.
An array of objects in one of the rooms photographed for “Atomgrad” represent a disjointed accumulation of time – each object representing a different point in time contained together in one space. Refusing to move, time passes and their meanings build up, more time passes, they eventually become mythologised and commodified. Like in CSI, we are not witness to the passage of time – this is the accumulation of meaning, the disjointed arrangement of objects as evidence for a crime we can never see.
We bare witness to the mortification and death of time, re-ordered for the present with all the new associations that are presented with it. For example. I can point to this room and recognise it as part of a level to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. What I am trying to show is that, because of the forensic re-appropriation of the content of Pripyat by the artists, we can round off the Pripyat and the rooms we are presented with into an entirely fictionalised world of Cold War heroes, mythic wastelands and retrofutures. It is a world for forensic superhumans. It’s the political as kitsch. All associations can, with a slight nudge, be pushed entirely into an abstract commodity. “Atomgrad” presents us with a vision of the artist who excavates the past to present it for consumption. Although it plays on the language of threat and terror, it never engages with it. We bear witness in this exhibit to catastrophe resold as art.
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