Fieldwork in Chernobyl

Almost twenty five years ago, on April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. In the aftermath, people, and radiation, were dispersed across the Soviet Union. 8000 people work there today to minimise the spread of contamination. Chernobyl is still alive.

I have to say I never really planned to make this body of work. In early 2009, during an unexpected stay in Kiev, I’d arranged a trip to Chernobyl to get a single video shot of Reactor #4 for an art installation, on the off chance that it might work with some other material about entombment I had been collecting in Egypt and Australia.

Alushta Boardwalk Chernobyl workers

We drove in past abandoned houses still contaminated by radiation, and further along, more toxic houses buried under a thick layer of clay. The power plant structures sat in a vast white lake - the iced-over cooling channels and cooling pond. These structures are terminally damaged, incomplete or obsolete. Later that day, standing alone in the middle of the abandoned city of Pripyat, surrounded by thick snow and heavy silence, it felt like the end of the world. I did not know what to think. I then started to shoot material and talk to people. I returned in 2010, whilst on SSP leave from SCA, and the major work of this research, Precarious, began to take shape.

The grey, bleak, winter landscapes in the art installations Fieldwork I and Fieldwork II, and the feature length art film Precarious are paradoxically, reassuring. In Chernobyl, a heavy winter is good protection against radiation, because radioactive dust is trapped under the ice and snow. But of course, there is always the danger that in spring, flooding will occur, and once again contaminated water will run from the Pripyat River through Ukraine to the Black Sea.

Power Plant Power Lines

Whilst the durational video installations Fieldwork I and Fieldwork II, and the photo series Plant Life, are destined for gallery exhibition (to date, Stills Gallery 2009, Hobart Art Gallery and Museum, 2010, Monash University Gallery 2010) Precarious, which is scheduled for completion in December, is almost a road movie. It starts in Crimea, on the Black Sea, in inverse direction to the flow of contaminated water from the Pripyat River that ran in 1986 through Chernobyl, into the Dnieper River, and from there to the Black Sea. It takes us into the heart of Chernobyl. To the very much alive Reactor No. 4.

The different voices of people I interviewed for this work who lived through the explosion speak of memory, truth, displacement, uncertainty and the effects of state secrecy. Their voices evoke lived experience rather than history to frame the extreme uncertainty and doubt surrounding Chernobyl today.

Kiev Park woman Kiev Park man

The new $1b USD Containment planned to cover the severely breached sarcophagus over Reactor No. 4, has been hailed as the world’s largest built structure. It is long overdue, and if it ever is built, will buy 100 years of time during which it is hoped that a solution to the problem of safe disposal of the 200 tonnes of radioactive waste lying in the basement of the breached reactor will be found. This uncertainty is at the heart of my research.

As well as footage shot in Crimea, Kiev, Chernobyl, I am using the contemporary voices and stories of a range of people. Subtitled, layered, broken, interrupted, incomplete, there is no linear narrative to grasp – rather a flow of fragments that accumulate to build a sense of the utter precariousness of it all. There are many ambiguities and nuances in what may seem like a straightforward situation. Chernobyl is a metaphor for both the horror of uncontrolled nuclear power and for state secrecy and deception. It has ongoing, real consequences for all of us.

Making art about Chernobyl makes sense to me – freed from the need to write history it can find its own way within the polyphony of opinions, facts, figures, reports - volatile markers in a shifting, subjective landscape of public policy, political and economic agendas, because art, above all, is anchored to human experience.

Merilyn Fairskye

Merilyn Fairskye was invited to present this research at the 5th International Conference on the Arts in Society held at Sydney College of the Arts in July 2010, and at the Thursday Night Lectures, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney, October 2010.

The production of Precarious has been assisted by a Visual Arts and Craft Strategy grant from the Australia Council for the Arts. On completion, Precarious will be submitted to national and international film festivals, and the new video installation and photography will be shown at Stills Gallery in 2011 and at other venues.