"In the Footsteps of Ghosts". A conversation with Pavel Otdelnov. Director Geraint Rhys. 2020
"Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics", Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2020. ISBN 9780262044455
"In the Footsteps of Ghosts", Geraint Rhys Whittaker, "Wales Arts Review", February, 23, 2020
"From Wales to Dzerzhinsk 'In the Footsteps of Ghosts. Geraint Rhys' award-winning film about the artist Pavel Otdelnov", Michele A. Berdy, "The Moscow Times", February, 22, 2020
"Pavel Otdelnov: Future Ruins", Kate de Pury, "Russian Art Focus", 14 issue, January, 2020
"See Death and Life in Dzerzhinsk", Aaron James Wedland, “The Moscow Times”, February, 18, 2019
"The Last of the Soviet Artists: Who are they?", Victoria Lomasko lection in the Wende Museum, March, 23, 2019
"Artist probes Russia's toxic legacy through family history", Kate de Pury, Associated Press Agency, February, 20, 2019
the article was edited more than 300 editions all over the world, including:
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«The Collapse of Communism», Whanganui Chronicle, March, 8, 2019
Catalog for the exhibition «Promzona. Pavel Otdelnov», Triumph Gallery, Moscow. Published with the support of Heinrich Böll Foundation. 2019. ISBN 978-5-6041668-8-8. Read
Aleksandr Otdelnov, Gas Mask Required, book, Triumph Gallery, Moscow. Published with the support of Heinrich Böll Foundation. 2019. Read (russian)
Editions for different exhibitions of the PROMZONA project
A growing awareness in Russian society and among artists regarding the legacy of the Soviet modernization project is also seen through the interest in “microhistories.” These are testimonies narrated by ordinary people, and by contemporaries from their families. Thus, step-by-step, the collective past is starting to be shaped, bringing another scale and temporality to the questions of how humans intervene in the Critical Zone and inhabit the territory. This approach makes it possible to show the entanglement of the individual in the vast context of ecologic devastation left by the modernization project of the twentieth century, which is therefore realized to be part of collective memory.
The arts-based research by Pavel Otdelnov is a part of this tendency. In his recent projects shown collectively in the exhi- bition Promzona (2019) at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, he tells the story of the chemical plants in his native city of Dzerzhinsk (Nizhny Novgorod region). In the Soviet era, it was the largest center of the chemical industry, a city of scientific triumphs and progress, producing large quantities of chemical weapons. Its importance has faded away as did the utopian ideology, leaving behind a territory on the verge of environmental disaster caused by both legal and illegal unsafe disposal of toxic chemical waste. According to the Blacksmith Institute, this is one of the most polluted places in the world. What can be seen today are large areas of wastelands, chemical waste reservoirs, and ruins that are being reconquered by flora and fauna. While preparing his projects, Otdelnov studied the territory of the chemical plants, various archival materials, contemporary newspapers, and personal stories of people who used to work in the chemical industry.
The history of the artist’s family became the starting point of his research. Three generations of his ancestors worked for the chemical industry in Dzerzhinsk, and witnessed the development of the plants over the city’s history. The films From White Sea to Black Hole (2019; the title refers to the color of the polluted territories) and Chemical Factory (2019), both shot from a quadrocopter, reveal picturesque views of the territories polluted by the former chemical plants. The perspectives of the images create ambiguities of scales, of being on macro or microlevels. The films show the surface of the Earth, its polluted skin, as though it is a view of an unknown, strangely beautiful planet. These contemporary aerial views combined with the presentation of the historical objects from these areas (staged as a local history museum) and stories of people who had lived there about their sense of this place (film Subjects of Memory, 2016) create a strange feeling as though the alienated territory were being brought back and you have yet to settle on this strange alienated ground that is also your Heimat [home]. In his artistic works Otdelnov creates a very special sense for a place that is exposed to “slow violence” and is recognizable without having a particular name or geographic location, a landscape haunted by its past and imagined utopian future. It is not just one tragic personal story of environmental devastation in a particular place that is being recognized here, but an image of the common past — an epoch of progress and modernization, of huge (secret) industries, which we still have to learn a lot about in order to find a balance for coexistence within the Critical Zone.
Daria Mille. "Trajectories of Modernization in Russia: Artists Recalibrating the Sensorium". "Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics"
Earlier this year, in a solo show with the title “Promzona” at Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art, Otdelnov dug deep into his own personal history and that of the city where he grew up. Born into a Soviet-era ‘labour dynasty’, Otdelnov drew on stories of his family, three generations of engineers who worked at highly polluted chemical factories of Dzerzhinsk, to examine what he described as “the ruins of a Soviet mythology”.
In ‘Promzona’ (which translates as “Industrial Zone”), Otdelnov’s huge, photographically-precise canvases showed the now abandoned factories where his family once worked, interspersed with everyday objects and stories of their lives. His exploration of Russia’s Soviet industrial past shows how its mythology failed to translate into reality for the ordinary people working in often dangerous and toxic environments.
Kate de Pury, "Pavel Otdelnov: Future Ruins", "Russian Art Focus" #14, January 2020
Pavel Otdelnov recalls how as a child he saw his mother boil his parents’ bedding every day. His father worked in the factories of Dzerzhinsk, the center of Soviet chemical manufacturing, and the chlorine and phosgene that yellowed the sheets seeped through protective gear into his skin.
“Dad was born in a workers’ camp and gave his entire life to chemical industries around Dzerzhinsk,” Otdelnov wrote in the notes for “Promzona”, a new exhibit at Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art that features his paintings of industrial ruins interspersed with objects from workers’ daily lives.
The artist’s huge, architecturally precise paintings of decayed factories in his hometown, some overgrown as nature reclaimed the land, show what he calls “the ruins of a Soviet mythology.” Many of the chemical plants, once a proud part of Soviet history, sit abandoned in a city fouled by toxic waste, the result of a utopian mythology which never translated into reality, least of all for its people.
“People who worked in those factories understood a long time ago, in the 1970s, that the Soviet idea, communism, was a myth and would never be realized,” Otdelnov, whose post-Soviet landscapes also are in the Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery and private international collections, said in an interview. “They understood that a long time before the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Otdelnov was born into a “labor dynasty” that gave Dzerzhinsk several generations of chemical workers, starting with his great-grandfather. Just before World War II, his grandmother came from a remote village to the former secret city located 355 kilometers (220 miles) east of Moscow and named for a feared Bolshevik secret police chief.
After the Soviet Union started making chemical weapons starting in Dzerzhinsk in 1941, the artist’s grandmother worked on the shop floor assembling lethal payloads. She met her husband after the war in the same factory, Orgsteklo, where he was in charge of quality control of the plexiglass it produced for military and civilian needs.
Otdelnov’s father and aunt worked in the same factory after they finished school. Otdelnov’s cousin currently works in a Dzerzhinsk factory lab.
Reports vary as to when Dzerzhinsk factories stopped making lewisite, mustard gas and other chemicals designed as weapons of war. Some accounts put the date as late as 1965. Huge stocks of the deadly compounds were sealed and kept in the city’s industrial zone until they were moved to dismantling facilities and destroyed under an international chemical weapons ban in the 2000s.
Dzerzhinsk still has a chemical industry producing compounds for munitions along with fertilizers, pesticides and plastics. Many plants that were part of the military industrial complex didn’t survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, but their toxic waste remains buried in underground dumps or seeping from landfills.
Dzerzhinsk often is listed as one of the world’s most-polluted cities. The Ecology Committee of the lower house of Russia’s parliament put it among the 10 with the worst pollution in Russia. Last year, Otdelnov used a drone to record the industrial ruins from the air, capturing a huge multicolored lake of chemical waste, open to the sky, nearby.
The Museum of Modern Art exhibit includes a room decorated like a local museum with everyday objects like factory newsletters and safety instruction films. Gas masks from the old chemical workshops litter the floor of another room. Brown chemical bottles labeled with the names of gases also are displayed.
Running through the whole show are the voices of the people whose lived reality was so far from the Soviet mythology, their stories recorded by Otdelnov’s father and written on the exhibition walls.
Otdelnov’s grandmother describes an explosion in the caprolactam plant in 1960 that killed 24 workers and never was made public. The workers were buried in different parts of the city cemetery to avoid questions from other residents about why 24 people who worked in that factory died on the same day.
These personal stories are a telling counterpoint to the official Soviet narrative of “Glory to Labor and Science” in Dzerzhinsk, striking in the stoicism and often humor factory workers displayed in a hazardous environment.
“Humor helped them come to terms with their reality but they weren’t especially heroic. They just got used to it,” Otdelnov said.
In a memoir written for the show, Otdelnov’s father, Alexander, recalled random accidents workers had in the chemical factories, due to faulty equipment or simple human error.
Sometimes they escaped unharmed. Sometimes they died. On New Year’s Eve in 1981, as the men hurried to get home, carbon monoxide from an overflow pump filled a gas holding tank to capacity, then burst into the pipe system and through to the employee showers. The 12-man crew that had just completed a shift was killed.
Many of the exhibition’s viewers on a cold February evening were young people from Moscow and other cities. Otdelnov’s pared-down industrial aesthetic is certainly part of the appeal, but 23-year-old Anna Kiselyova said the exhibit held valuable political lessons for Russia’s younger generation, not just its factory workers.
“Our present government tells us this all happened such a long time ago,” said Kiselyova, a Russian teacher from Moscow. “It may seem like a very different world, but I don’t think it’s just a problem of the past, and we need to be aware of that.”
Kate de Pury, "Artist probes Russia's toxic legacy through family history", Associated Press Agency, February 20, 2019
In a famous essay written shortly after the Second World War, Martin Heidegger draws a distinction between ancient and modern technology. Ancient technology is “gentle” insofar as it exemplifies a certain harmony with the environment. Modern technology is “violent” to the extent that it exhibits little regard for life-sustaining ecosystems. And in his “Industrial Zone” show at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), Pavel Otdelnov captures the violence of modern technology and calls for a gentler relation to the natural world.
“Industrial Zone” depicts the danger of modern technology through a series of found objects, video installations, and paintings that Otdelnov collected or produced in the city of Dzerzhinsk, which is about 400 kilometers east of Moscow. It was the center of the Soviet chemical industry. And it happens to be the ancestral home of Otdelnov’s family.
Otdelnov’s exhibition opens with a room that explores the life his grandparents lived while working in a plant that covertly produced chemical weapons during World War II. In his notes on the exhibit, Otdelnov describes laboring in this factory as “extremely hazardous and taxing,” and he details a scene in which his grandmother regularly boiled the bedsheets to clean the stains that came from the chlorine in her skin.
Since the plant Otdelnov’s grandparents worked at was both a state secret and partially destroyed by an explosion in 1960, Otdelnov’s art draws mainly from old newspaper clippings and film-strips that were stored in the factory’s bomb shelter. In fact, most of the paintings in the initial part of the exhibit are eerie gray-scale reproductions of the few remaining traces of the plant and the people who worked there.
The existence of a bomb shelter speaks to the constant threat posed to Otdelnov’s grandparents, but Otdelnov notes that his grandfather’s memories were “filled with laughter.” And in a moment of dark Russian humor, Otdelnov explains that the emergency procedures which were designed for an enemy attack were actually best used against “the real danger that came from the chemical plants themselves.”
Art of disaster
Of course, the danger that came from chemical production was not restricted to the workers. So, in a 30-minute documentary, two overlapping video installations, and several paintings done in fine Soviet style, Otdelnov highlights the environmental degradation that plagues Dzerzhinsk to this day.
The documentary tells the story of several people who worked in Soviet chemical plants and survived, and it oscillates between rather intimate interviews, images of abandoned factories, and panoramas of the damage done to Dzerzhinsk’s coniferous landscape.
Otdelnov’s video installations use the latest satellite and drone technology to indicate the scale of Dzerzhinsk’s ecological crises. The footage begins at a bird’s eye view and exposes the scars left on the earth’s surface after years of illegal chemical dumping. As the cameras zoom in, the scars give way to pictures of tailing ponds (ponds that contain the refuse from the industrial process) that are both rich in color and perversely beautiful. But at ground level, we are presented with lifeless forests and poisoned rivers which will take much political will (or millennia) to revive.
In a superb painting entitled “Hazard,” Otdelnov exhibits Dzerzkinsk’s poisonous environment by setting a realistic barbwire fence against a foreboding, Rothko-esque background. The fence is meant to keep the local population away from a sinkhole that the Guinness Book of World Records has labeled “the most polluted lake in the world.” But Otdelnov explains that the barbed wire is not enough to keep “extreme tourists” from visiting and then leaving their radioactive boots behind.
Alas, this extreme tourism hasn’t saved Dzerzkinsk’s economy, and Otdelnov’s most powerful paintings are collected in a set of rooms that detail the ruins of industrial buildings that didn’t survive the transition from Soviet communism to free-market capitalism in the 1990s.
Two paintings in particular standout: “Gasholder” and “Shop 538.” “Gasholder” depicts a rusted-out and collapsing diesel tank in the foreground and a sullen, late-autumn sky in the background. “Shop 538” consists in an abandoned six-story factory with broken windows set in an abstract winter scene. Both the tank and factory are lonely, lifeless figures, and they evoke a wistfulness that would otherwise be reserved for the loss of an old home.
Nature fights back
Life, however, has not been entirely excluded from Dzerzkinsk’s industrial ruins. In fact, Otdelnov’s final video installations focuses on the way nature is clawing its way back through the cracks of what were once mighty factories.
Here the violent potential of modern technology no longer seems so threatening, and by highlighting traces of life in the wreckage of modernity Otdelnov subtly calls for a return to an ancient harmony between human technology and the natural world.
“Soviet history,” as Otdelnov puts it, “is turning into the ruins of antiquity.” And while he tells us “his project is about oblivion,” he ultimately sees “trees growing through concrete and nature reclaiming the land.”
Aaron James Wedland, "See Death and Life in Dzerzhinsk", "The Moscow Times", February 18, 2019