“This project is like an archaeological dig” writes Maxim Dondyuk of ‘Untitled Project: Chernobyl’, a vast treasure trove of an online exhibition. It combines found imagery storytelling the socio-political history of Ukraine, with the artist’s own works of hastily deserted landscapes and snowy, overgrown terrains, giving the viewer hundreds of images, click throughs, moving image pieces and news clippings to explore.
The artist went to Pripyat, Ukraine, and surrounding land, to shoot the abandoned homes and buildings left behind in the wake of the disaster that took place at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in April 1986, forcing thousands to flee and still affecting so many to the present day. Initially planning to document the empty concrete shells of where life once thrived but now overgrown and abandoned, instead a lost archive of community, life and presence is presented by Dondyuk.
Dondyuk stumbled upon left behind contact sheets and vernacular photographs in the buildings he was shooting. Some ready to gather up and smuggle out of the city, some since developed by the artist, they allow the viewer to peek or squint – literally, as some are somewhat damaged - into the past.
The decay and disappearance in the photographs is due to these objects being left to languish. This physicality is also symbolic, with the distortion from mud, time and radioactivity, evoking the feelings of 1986, as infrastructure and flesh were engulfed in flames and ripped apart by renegade nuclear energy. Peep-holes of undamaged film, meanwhile, take us back to the USSR, a place that no longer exists physically; to look over an idyllic seeming lake at Soviet swimmers at leisure and at farm workers gently labouring and also at rest.
Miraculously, some of the developed negatives are also perfectly intact, pictures of brothers and sisters - not unlike those perhaps stored in our own domestic archives - but viewed with the knowledge that these happy scenes were soon to come to a close in this particular location, replaced perhaps by grief and displacement.
The section about family albums is vast. These domestic shots gathered are not all from just before 1986, looking at the dress, colour, poise and activity of what the artist calls a “flourishing time”. They were simply left when people fled - apparently not deemed necessary belongings to take during evacuation. Dondyuk’s flat lay of piles of these pictures makes for the feeling of a vast archive; hours of fascinating images to look at as the cursor scrolls again, again and again. Some photographs have been pieced back together by the artist and others appear as tiny fragments. Eventually, at the end of the web platform we meet Dondyuk’s own images of where the archival pictures were found; a chaotic mess of mud, brick, detritus and foliage.
Some of the images are flipped on their backs, location and date logged in crayon or ink and ephemera including a camera instruction manual has also been found. The word marks tell us the pictures come from 1945, 1953 and 1979 to name a few (these three, we may note, coincidently ‘seminal’ years for the USSR). This is significant - we are not used to seeing vernacular images of this time period but rather sanitised propaganda shots or officiated war or government generated imagery.
The eerily quiet scenes of the ‘ghost town’ of Pripyat are captured deftly by Dondyuk’s own camera and sit in the exhibition alongside confident boulevards of a new 1970s town pre-blast. Snow capped trees in the foreground pre-empt our gaze moving to abandoned apartments and play parks. Winter landscapes are peppered with dilapidated wooden buildings and peppermint green paint inside a school building remains bright in the winter light, as does the pillar box red on a sign emblazoned with Lenin’s head.
Dondyuk’s own images are elegant and quiet - yet definitely not silent - in comparison to the hubbub of life gathered in vernacular shots from hundreds of homes and public buildings from the past. In the penultimate section of the presentation, this is further emphasised by a series of Western newspaper headlines from Spring 1986, blaring their perceived views of Soviet incompetence from the other side of the iron curtain in a noisy, accusatory black font.
Dondyuk avoids putting together too many ‘then and now’ pieces in ‘Untitled Project’ but because they don’t appear often within the project when they do, we can assume intentionally, they have a strong impact. Teenagers on the starting blocks of a swimming pool are placed next to the same empty pool and crumbling bricks captured by the artist. Peeling classrooms sit next to happy school groups and beaming classmates. A TV with no glass captured by Dondyuk when compared with the short newsreels of people hastily exiting Pripyat and Gorbachev addressing the nation post disaster is haunting.
The artist has said the work in this form is still a ‘presentation’ rather than exhibition and that it could also be seen physically in due course. Yet the works are formatted on the digital page carefully; lain on the crisp white page as if in a vitrine. This is not a hastily thrown together ‘lockdown’ online gallery, something that our eyes may be accustomed to enduring this year. These are decades of traces of history, of families, neighbours, colleagues and school friends left to decay into the radiated ground saved as a time capsule of what used to exist there. Using his own practice, Dondyuk gives us context and understanding for this unique archive that he has preserved.