Dead Space and Ruins

by | Exhibition

A season on utopian public space and the quest for new national identities across the post-Soviet world

The abandoned and decaying infrastructure of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc is the intriguing subject of a new exhibition that opens in London. Taking inspiration from the vast landscape of the former Soviet Union, four artists aim to “explore the theme of ‘Dead Space’, left in the wake of the quest for progress”. The exhibition (the second in Calvert 22’s Power and Architecture season), explores architecture’s relationship to power by artists from across the New East region.

From the earliest civilisations, art and architecture have often been instruments of power. They have demonstrated both a particular regime’s worldview and vision of themselves, and also their attempt to influence others into accepting the veracity of that vision.

When the narrative changes – either gradually or violently – the buildings, art or relics of the ancien regime – and what to do with them – come sharply into focus. Should they be repurposed, demolished, enjoyed as picturesque ruins or simply ignored? In our modern age these questions are of course highly controversial.

Many buildings and artefacts are so invested with an alien ideological significance that they are sometimes difficult to adapt or ignore. Such is the dilemma faced in Germany regarding many vast totems of the Nazi era, and whether for example to spend €70m to restore the Nuremberg rally grounds. Similarly in Austria the government considers whether to forcibly repurchase the Hitler family home to stop it becoming a Nazi shrine. Meanwhile Daesh’s nihilistic destruction at Palmyra is simply the latest in the age old practice of memory destruction.

The degree to which Soviet relics are controversial depends of course on where they are located. In Ukraine, Baltic states and Eastern Europe, vast armies of Lenin statues have been mutilated or removed and other Soviet symbols purged. In Putin’s anti-communist and authoritarian Russia meanwhile, a nostalgia for all things Soviet – albeit one shorn of any ideology and meaning – has gripped the land. “Nostalgia,” the journalist Herb Caen once remarked, “is memory with the pain removed”, and so it is in modern Russia as it bemoans the loss in 1991 of superpower status and empire. Collectivisation and famine, mass trials and gulags, hopes crushed and lives devastated – all are conveniently deleted from the new narrative.

Danila Tkachenko travelled to locations that had been off-limits in the former Soviet Union. The artist’s Restricted Areas series evocatively captures brutalist ruins looming out of the frozen wastelands of Russia and Eastern Europe. These decaying monuments to an obsolete Soviet vision emerge out of the eradicating whiteness like the bones of once omnipotent dinosaurs. “Those places lost their significance together with the utopian ideology, which is now obsolete,” says Tkachenko. “Secret cities that cannot be found on maps, forgotten scientific triumphs, abandoned buildings of almost inhuman complexity. The perfect technocratic future that never came.”

Eric Lusito’s work, Traces of the Soviet Empire and Vahram Agasian’s Ghost City, also feature in the exhibition.

Danila Tkatchenko, 18. Headquarters of Communist Party. Bulgaria, Yugoiztochen region, 2015, from the Restricted Areas series, Courtesy of the artist
Headquarters of Communist Party. Bulgaria, Yugoiztochen region, 2015, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Danila Takatchenko, 2. Former residential buildings in a deserted polar scientific town specialised on biological research. Russia, Komi Republic, 2014 Dead space and ruins
Former residential buildings in a deserted polar scientific town specialised on biological research. Russia, Komi Republic, 2014, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Danila Takatchenko, The world's largest diesel submarine. Russia Dead space and ruins
The world’s largest diesel submarine. Russia, Samar Region, 2013, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Danila Takatchenko, Memorial on a deserted nuclear station. Russia Dead space and ruins
Memorial on a deserted nuclear station. Russia, Voronezh region, 2015, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Danila Takatchenko, Sarcophagus over a closed shaft which is 4 km deep. Russia Dead space and ruins
Sarcophagus over a closed shaft which is 4 km deep – was one of the deepest scientific shafts in the world at the time. Russia, Murmansk region, 2013, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Danila Takatchenko, Monument to the Conquerors of Space. The rocket on top was made according to the design of German V-2 missile. Russia, Moscow, 2015 Dead space and ruins
Monument to the Conquerors of Space. The rocket on top was made according to the design of German V-2 missile. Russia, Moscow, 2015, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Danila Takatchenko, Deserted observatory. Kazakhstan, Almaty region, 2015 Dead space and ruins
Deserted observatory. Kazakhstan, Almaty region, 2015, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Danila Takatchenko, Water contamination test at the lake around the previously closed scientific city Chelyabinsk-40 Dead space and ruins
Water contamination test at the lake around the previously closed scientific city Chelyabinsk-40. In 1964 there was the first nuclear catastrophe, one of the largest in history and equal in scale to Chernobyl, but it stayed secret. The city is surrounded by the lakes which are until now contaminated with radiation. Russia, Chelyabinsk region, 2013, from the Restricted Areas series.

Danila Takatchenko. Image courtesy of the artist.

Dead Space and Ruins is part of the Power and Architecture season at Calvert 22 Foundation and will run until 7 August 2016.

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