Photographing a forgotten future: Dead space and ruins at Calvert 22 Foundation
Brutalist architecture does not age gracefully. Lacking the attention that many London landmarks have been blessed with, a concrete modernist structure rapidly acquires a look of unthinking imposition, heavy-handedly dominating a landscape. It’s these unloved, unfinished, abandoned concrete masses that are captured by four photographers and film-makers exploring the legacy of Soviet rule at Calvert 22 Foundation. Through these artists’ lenses we see the monumental modernism of a by-gone time as a future that never arrived, a sci-fi utopia that was left to decay and rot.
Architecture and photography have shared a long history. From Bernd and Hiller Bercher’s shots of water towers to Andreas Gurskey’s endless geometric windows, photographers have long been inspired by the symmetry and strength found in the built environment, as well as the aesthetic appeal of dilapidated architecture, as explored by the Tate Gallery’s 2014 exhibition Ruin Lust. Dead space and ruins at Calvert 22 exhibits the work of four artists who each explore the remains of a Soviet legacy that now stands forgotten. As well as capturing the allure of abandoned structures, the ruins depicted are narrative, haunting subjects evoking a sadness and hopelessness.
Eric Lusito’s three imposing portraits of members of the Politburo and Central Committee of the Communist Party are the first images to greet visitors to the show. The portraits are original prints found in different abandoned soviet military bases. The headshots have been enlarged and fill the gallery’s expansive white wall. The prints are ripped, damaged and ruined – the forgotten and uncared-for photos represent the legacy of the people they portray. Here, the photographs are not the artist’s, but found objects representing the past. Lusito presents the decay through the destruction of somebody else’s images, evoking a sense of abandoned hope and forgotten promise, which runs throughout the show.
Beside these fractured portraits is Ghost City, a series of photographs by Vahram Aghasyan documenting Gyumri in Armenia, a town hit by a devastating earthquake in 1988; the new homes and infrastructure promised by the government were never completed, leaving the area derelict and unfinished. Aghasyan’s portraits of the city’s abandoned modernist structures have been digitally manipulated to depict them in the middle of a lake or flood. The surreal artificial reflections of the buildings on the water emphasise the expanse of nothingness that characterises these areas. “Modernism will never disappear entirely from Armenia, just as it never entirely arrived,” comments the artist.
Throughout the exhibition, the images are almost devoid of people; the humanity of the urban landscape has been relegated following the collapse of Soviet rule. The lack of life reminds us of the contrast between the fleeting presence of people and the immutability of the buildings created for them.
The images of the first gallery are set to the eerie evocative music of a video playing in a side room behind a curtain. The music is from Anton Ginzburg’s 2016 film, Turon, exploring Constructivist architecture across post-Soviet eastern Europe through four chapters, each one focusing on a different landmark modernist building as a stage for past utopias. The music crescendos dramatically, a theatrical soundtrack to a ghostly stage set. The film’s journey brings to life the haunting portraits of the previous room. The camera walks through scenes of desolation: a sackcloth in a doorway blows in the wind, clouds swirl like abstract black and white waves, and the cold beige walls of concrete constructivist interiors are lit and thrown into shadow by bright sunlight glowing at broken windows. In each chapter, the monumental tower at its focus is ultimately brought down to nothingness, abstracted into ruin.
Danila Tkatchenko’s photography series, Restricted Areas, presents structures as abstract images, completing the devastation of these ruins by obscuring their forms. Tkatchenko transforms the deserted structures into surreal black lines on white backgrounds. His subjects include a test bench for missiles, an antenna built for interplanetary connection and the ruins of an experimental laser system: structures that now stand as shrines to faded and forgotten optimism. Photographed in snowy landscapes, the piercing white backgrounds swallow up all surrounding signs of life. Some of his haunting shots are so faded and over-exposed they leave the subject indistinct, as if they are images of memories.
In contrast to the black and white abstract images by Tkatchenko, on the wall opposite hangs a series of photographers by Eric Lusito, Traces of the Soviet Empire, depicting abandoned interior spaces from former Soviet bases, monuments and equipment. In spaces that recall sports halls and conference rooms, Lusito’s images depict desolation and ruin. The paintwork is peeling, the floors are strewn with rubble and the once vibrant colours are faded: they are photos of a rotting past.
Dead space and ruins is part of a season run by Calvert 22 entitled Power and Architecture, exploring the design of the built environment and its use as a device of influence under Soviet rule and across the post-Soviet world. In the current exhibition, the authority portrayed through the grand futuristic monuments is a lost power. The artists have captured the legacy of the Soviet Union through photographs of emptiness, abandonment and ruin. Individually, the architectural images are intriguing compositions, textural, abstract, artistic and titillating. Yet seen together, they evoke a sense of sadness for the ambitious ideologies of socialism and the forgotten promises of the past.
(The image is by Danila Tkachenko from the series Restricted Areas)