The core of the project is the story of the artist’s family, where several generations worked for chemical industries in the city of Dzerzhinsk, Nizhny Novgorod Region. For that reason the exhibitions White Sea. Black Hole, shown in NCCA Arsenal (Nizhny Novgorod, 2016) and Chemical Plant, FUTURO Gallery (also Nizhny Novgorod, 2018), were both tailored to the local context and appealed to an aware and engaged audience. Indeed, the environmental disaster in the area of both legal and illegal chemical waste disposals is waiting to happen. The exhibitions visitors reacted as something happening literally in their back yard rather than somewhere far away. For that reason Pavel staged in NCCC Arsenal a sort of local history museum with documents and displays benefiting from the features of exhibitional space. The painting went into the shadows and gave way to history, turning from a protagonist into a witness. Such artistic “testimony” about environmental problems provoked most acute reaction of the audience.
Over time, the project grew into a work interesting and recognizable without any geographical correlation. The artist’s perspective has gained objectivity and we can witness not a single tragic story, but an image of our common past— an epoch of huge secret industries that involved, directly or indirectly, a major part of the European population in the mid-20th century. This epoch left us with industrial areas of astonishing magnitude which proved to be feasible only under planned economy, and undergoing surprisingly rapid decay. Even faster than it takes to rot away the paper of old newspapers. Some “objects” in the painting series in Ruins were still operating enterprises in the 2000s.
In the last few years there has been a growing interest to recent history in our society and among artists, who are able to feel and to reconceptualize this trend. There is renewed interest to stories narrated by living contemporaries, to history of own families affected by calamities of social cataclysms, to momentous historical events as experienced by an average person. Nobody is surprised by documentary theater anymore. Projects related to “micro history” such as Life Stories that publishes remaining diaries and letters of ordinary people who lived in the last century, are gaining popularity. Trivial events, attributes of simple and unsophisticated existence now serve as instruments to understand disasters of the turbulent 20th century.
Reflecting on the reasons why people turn to this side of the past, I realized what abyss lies between myself and workers whose newspaper photos have been reproduced by Pavel Otdelnov in his installation called Wall of Fame, a similar to the distance with the builders of ancient Pyramids. This abyss is the irrevocably ended epoch. And even the part of my own life that overlaps with those times now also seems inaccessibly remote. It was not the failure of ideologies or the collapse of the empire which divided us. The development of information technology played a more important role. With the huge flow of verbal and visual information constantly consumed by an average representative of our civilization, it has become obvious that the world has split into digital and non-digital, the latter being unstable and vanishing. Moreover, emergence of global information networks, which has opened immediate access to enormous volumes of information and launched digitalization of archives with provision of free access to them, has proved to the society that history can be easily falsified and mythologized in the absence of alternative independent sources of information. This is the main reason, I think, why the society is so seeking to preserve records of the recent past, persistently trying to retain its visual imagery and tangible evidences. It is still possible to touch it and obtain eye witness testimony in various forms of recollections and accounts—from the official version of the events to stories and anecdotes provided by direct participants.
The project Promzona is based on the same principles. The exposition introduces a museum narrative and is divided into sections covering different sources of information related to the object. The section named Traces encompasses canvases painted from newspaper photos and ready-made objects—fragments of instructional filmstrips on civil defense found by the artist in abandoned industrial premises.
The artwork 12.02.60 stands out in this “archival” series.
Styled as a newspaper publication piece, it shows consequences of a real event which took place in February 1960: an explosion that practically demolished a huge industrial premise and killed an entire shift of workers. However, none of newspapers of the time mentioned this tragedy. Relying on an image of a building destroyed by explosion found in the factory's archives, Pavel paints a stylized faded newspaper photography as if trying to fill this gap in social memory formed by silenced disaster that happened at secret industrial plants.
The painted installation Wall of Fame represents photos of honorary best-performing workers from factory newspapers of different years. The style of photography and different degree of “deterioration” of the images allow us to estimate the time frame—around fifty years ago—when the photos were originally taken and printed. The exhibition room has old, half-decayed gas masks scattered around, which accentuates the man-made and durable character of what had happened.
The section Museum encompasses, in keeping with the title, records and information about the condition of the object and contains artifacts that tell its story. Different forms of representation are used in this part of the exposition, including photographs of traces left in residential blocks in workers settlements, video installations and films which capture the current condition of the investigated objects, artifacts, and samples of scents.
Sand—the eternal companion of decay. Everyone, who has ever happened to visit an abandoned site in summer, will remember this unpleasant rasping of sand on your teeth after each gust of wind. You can hardly see the tram tracks under a layer of sand, even though trams still ran here just a few years ago. Not occasionally European culture associates sand with oblivion. The artworks in Sand share a common sense of devastation, oblivion and repose. But this quietness is deceptive. Concrete cubes slightly rising over the monotonous sandy wasteland are there to tightly seal the wellheads of an extremely dangerous deep waste repository. And new “forms of life” which emerge in slime pits are lurking alongside.
Ruins is an important part of the project which collects painted “portraits” of ruined industrial premises and their interior spaces. Not accidentally I called them “portraits”. These canvases are composed in the way and painted with the techniques that are characteristic of the classical portrait genre. Such as visual accentuation of the “protagonist” and generalization of their traits, separation and alienation from the viewer, static time flow and deceleration. These constructions resemble giants that had once forced their way up through the earth mass and sedately are withering away now, None of the paintings in the series have any people in them and the spectator is the only visitor to this dazed world.
Painting is a medium directly related to time. Preliminary work and creation of an artwork are slowly-paced and time-consuming processes. A major determining factor here is the technological process necessary to ensure long life of the artwork. Sometimes it seems as if painting is capable of accumulating the consumed time and creating voids in the time flow of the spectator. Pavel Otdelnov fully taps these medium-specific properties. Once close to his work, you want to slow down your step or to stop altogether in order to synchronize with the artwork and to halt in contemplating the ruins, rather ugly in reality but sublime through the lens of the artist.
Gas Mask Required, a book written by the artist’s father, Alexander Otdelnov, has become another important element of Promzona. It tells short stories about factory life and describes funny and sad occasions or just sketches of “routine” contacts with extremely hazardous chemical substances. Pavel complements the exhibitions with selected excerpts from the book. The lively and plain human stories contrast with images of half ruined industrial premises that fairly recently staged these stories . The text in general plays an important role in the project. The explications related to artworks allow the spectator to learn that these are real objects located in the proximity to Nizhny Novgorod, many of them continue to pose life-threatening danger to several more generations of local residents.
by Daria Kamyshnikova
This project is tied to the history of my family. I was born in Dzerzhinsk, the capital of the Soviet chemical industry. Three family generations before me had worked at secret chemical plants there. My grandmother had come to a factory workers camp from a remote village shortly before World War II broke out, as many new industries were under construction and needed extra labor. The jobs were very hazardous and taxing. Grandmother began with assembling payloads for chemical bombs and then worked at an aircraft plexiglass factory. My grandfather worked the same shop floor, where they eventually met. Their children, my dad and aunt, went to work for the same factory after school; in the 1970s, such continuity was a matter of pride and was called a “labor dynasty.”
This project focuses on the industrial estate around my hometown of Dzerzhinsk — a major chemical industry cluster. Most facilities in its eastern part were built in 1939. Their primary purpose was to produce chemical warfare agents, and during the war the output was extremely high, even though chemical weapons were almost never deployed by either side anymore. After the war, the plants were putting out feedstock for a broad range of Soviet industries, for example, caprolactam to be used as the base for synthetic fibers, or plexiglass, fertilizers, herbicides, tetraethyllead, DDT, phenol acetone, PVC.
As the centralized command economy became a thing of the past in the 1990s, the most lucrative industries went private, whereas most other plants were shut down as unprofitable. Major employers in the area were going bankrupt one after another. Today, many of the unused facilities stand either abandoned or completely destroyed.
As though this very recent past has been erased, huge factories have fallen into ruin. There is barely any trace left from the workers camp my ancestors lived in. The stories narrated by my grandmother sound like fairytales. This project is about oblivion, about mythologization of real historical events, about nature reclaiming land. Trees are growing through concrete slabs and destroy buildings. The Soviet
photo from the family archive
history, conceived as a myth, is turning into ruins of antiquity, having failed to become reality. Perversely, actual accounts lose their power of factual reality, are being reshaped and adapted to generalized perceptions, become what we conventionally term as history.
My dad was born in a workers camp and gave his entire life to chemical industries around Dzerzhinsk, within a couple kilometers from where his life began. “Best useful where born”, as we say in Russia, is a perfect description of my father. As a child, every night I saw a bucket of water heated up by my mom to boil bedsheets. Bedding always got yellow from chlorine and phosgene compounds that saturated the skin despite full-body hazmat protection. The shops that my dad worked were among the most harmful at the plant. Even so, his memoirs have loads of humor that sometimes helped to survive the most dangerous of situations.
Exhibitions of the PROMZONA project
2019 PROMZONA, Moscow Museum of Modern Art (Moscow)
2018 Factory Anecdotes, Creative Industrial Cluster Oktava (Tula)
2018 Chemical Plant, FUTURO Gallery, Nizhny Novgorod
2017 Main project of the 4th Ural Industrial Biennale of Contemporary Art, Key Theme: New Literacy, Ural Instrument-Making Plant (Ekaterinburg)
2017 Ruins, Victoria Gallery (Samara)
2016 White Sea. Black Hole, NCCA Arsenal (Nizhny Novgorod)
2016 Territory of Accumulated Damage, Belyaevo Gallery (Moscow)
2015 Wall of Fame, Stavropol Regional Museum of Fine Arts (Stavropol)