Art in the ruins
I have a small but persistent belief that places touched by disaster, such as Chernobyl and Pripyat, may be haunted by ghosts, those unsettled spirits tethered to the earth by an inability to comprehend the fate that has befallen them.
It was a day of ethereal mist and cold damp air in the woods which have thrived unchecked amongst the villages in Chernobyl. We wandered around once pretty cottages, derelict now, long abandoned by the threat of radiation. Traces of picture book carvings of doves and hearts could still be seen around the windows and doors and rotting floorboards still supported sticks of furniture, a kitchen table, an old cupboard. We could just make out the remains of kitchen gardens, children’s play areas, a small park with a rusty swing and see-saw.
I peered in a particularly charming bedroom window, murky with cobwebs and dirt; I could see a fine iron bedstead. When I stepped back, taking in the window and not the room beyond, I started, for staring hard back at me was a translucent old face, almost like a pencil drawing, with wiry silvery straggles of hair stuck out from her head like electricity. Someone who had returned, for reasons of her own.
One man, Ivan, had come back to his home in Chernobyl, the home he had built himself. Eighty now, alone since his wife died two years before, he hewed his wood, fetched water from his well, and blessed the Authorities for supplying him with electricity. Still, his home was a hovel, and only someone accepting of life’s twists and turns could have lived in it. Asked if he worried about the radiation, he shrugged and said that he couldn’t see it, he couldn’t smell it, so he never thought about it.
We drove on to the radar station, a ghostly structure in any weather but particularly on this day of swirling mists where the top was barely visible. Vertical, horizontal and curling steel. Designed to detect over- the-horizon missiles, it towered above the fir trees and reduced us to midgets. Never fully effective it seems, and now standing in isolated splendour, Ai Weiwei came to mind, his compelling installation ‘Straight’ where he straightened and transformed over a hundred tons of mangled steel rods that had been collected from the schools which had collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
Our group boarded the minibus to drive to Pripyat, the town where the fatal reactor went into meltdown.
The once pristine white apartment blocks of Pripyat are derelict, windows shattered, ceilings falling, cement paths cracked, lichen growing, greenly radioactive.
The hasty abandonment of the apartments was apparent by the odd dog eared and faded child’s drawing still pinned to the wall, the soft toy, drizzled with years of dust, perched on a windowsill, the chairs, overturned, splintering, an old kitchen cabinet.
We have seen photographs of the apartments before the accident, model homes, so very modern, borders full of roses, everywhere happy people.
Now saplings crowd the windows, grassy tufts invade and in places cover the concrete paths. Who would have thought that roads once so wide and open could become single trackswith weeds and moss criss-crossing haphazardly?
We moved on to the indoor swimming pool, bigger than was normally allowed for a town of this size, but this was a flagship town, proudly bearing testament to the Soviet Union.
The steps to the diving board had been sheared off, the empty pool was deep; its sides steep. A gaggle of ghosts huddled in the bottom among the broken tiles, a solitary trainer, a mattress.
The desolate café by the lake was purported to have served the best ice cream in town. What a grand place it must have been to relax on a weekend, overlooking the lake, with steps down from the patio to the landing stage for boarding the ‘Rocket’ and the ‘Meteor’, the popular water transport.
Two huge stained-glass windows, one of a stylized woman blowing a trumpet, in a rich variety of colours; both now somewhat shattered, a mosaic of multi coloured nuggets strewn across the floor, the remaining glass clinging to the frames like pieces of a jigsaw. On bright days the sun must have lit up the café with blocks of colour like one of Paul Klee’s paintings.
We were shown photographs of busy days at the café, mothers strolling with their children, couples hand in hand. In winter people would skate on the lake.
We moved on.
A monument to the firefighters who died, selflessly working to put out the blaze, trying desperately to limit the threat to the people, stands by an exhibition of some of the machines used to fight the explosion. It is a memorial created by skilled firefighters from the next brigade, therefore a work of deep respect, empathy and gratitude.
We wander on soberly.
In the cinema there are only a few of the plush seats inside, visible in the gloom. The hospital, the operating theatre, the babies’ nursery, a row of metal cots, and endless rubble.
And so we walk on, the concert hall, with the grand piano looking anything but grand, the ivories, what was left of them, akimbo. The school with one wall collapsed so that it stands like an open doll’s house, square classrooms with neat rows of desks and chairs exposed, a poignant reminder of how quickly the evacuation had been.
Pripyat is still regarded as home by many who were exiled, though they will never return to live there. Today it seems more like a decaying installation.
Finally, we reach the amusement park. Much publicized, it was to have been formally opened on May Day. The explosion happened on the 26th April, so May Day never came.
The Ferris wheel, with its twenty or so yellow carts resembling open cockle shells stands tall, a haunting silhouette against a silvery sky, waiting for joy riders who would never appear. We were warned that some of the carts had hot spots still, and NOT TO TOUCH.
A child’s roundabout ride slumped sagging and rusty, next to the higgledy piggledy dodgems.
The ghosts slipped away; half way up the wheel a yellow cart swayed slightly.
Linda Green is a writer. She has had several short stories published in a national magazine, one story in an anthology, The Ruberry Anthology and short listed for Mslexia mag and the Mogford prize. For pleasure she cooks and reads.
Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 pp 35-36
6 thoughts on “Art in the ruins”
Looking at Chernobyl from a visual arts perspective gave another dimension to this tragedy; you turned it into one very beautiful and unique museum. I appreciated your descriptions and really enjoyed your writing style. Over the years I have seen many photographs of Chernobyl and have had to read numerous scientific papers for my work, but up until now had never read anything as aesthetically moving as what you wrote on such a difficult topic. Your article merits some sort of writing prize.
Thank you for your most positive comments, they heartened me. I found the trip to Pripyat and the surrounding area breathtaking, inspirational and heart rending. It will live with me always. And nature, taking on the challenge, fighting back, bringing life again to the area, spectacular.
Thank you again
RT News in their project section retells the Chernobyl disaster, well worth watching:
You are a very gifted writer! You wrote as though Chernobyl were one very detailed, large canvas.
Your article made me recall what it brought to where I was living in Italy at the time. We were told to keep our children indoors, to not eat fresh fruit or vegetables and to use only bottled water. This lasted for around 6 weeks, and then people forgot all about it, but your article has made me remember that period, so tragic for the residents of Chernobyl. It must have been devastating for people there to so suddenly leave their homes forever.
Your article is very exciting, I liked it very much. The feeling of empty, absence and lack prevails over everything. What sadness to see the abandoned Ferris wheels!
Excellent aesthetic of a certain kind of abandoned isolation, a kind of diaspora of loneliness. You wrote an image of place that expressed it so well.