Although we tend to forget, trifles and dreams are part of even the most tragic stories.
Dash Cafe: Clouded Lands and a New Cold War, commemorating the 31 years since the Chernobyl explosion, was an ambitious event trying to do justice to the tragedy, the seemingly trivial and the longings of people affected by and living in Chernobyl.
Involving multiple senses and forms of art, the evening included a reading from Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s non-fiction Chernobyl Prayer – her collection of verbatim accounts of the disaster and its aftermath – a Ukrainian folk concert, a panel with a book launch, and a food installation. More than a usual London event, ‘Dash Cafe: Clouded Lands’ was a micro-festival blending moving and often funny first-person accounts with analytical insights, showing Chernobyl both as an ordinary post-Soviet smalltown and an extraordinary place of mutation and disease.
Images were intimate. We saw houses which had the usual regional colourful flower-decorated rugs on walls with plastic table cloths, embroidered white net curtains and fruit gardens – as well as cracks, empty plastic bottles and flaky paint reflecting the old and new exodus of the local population.
The people in the pictures ranged from a woman selling vegetables by a main road, to a little girl dressed as a princess in a cream ballerina skirt standing dreamily on a sofa bed covered with a synthetic brown blanket – a post-Soviet staple, found in many Eastern European homes. But as soon as you thought this looked like a pretty normal, if particularly poor, place in the region, you bumped into a picture of a baby with green shaded skin and fingers coming straight out of their shoulders – a chilling reminder of the fact Chernobyl isn’t just another post-Soviet town but also where the world’s largest nuclear disaster took place, transforming a relatively prosperous place into an almost deserted, impoverished ghost-town.
Despite that, not everyone left Chernobyl, and we heard their stories here.
“The cucumbers in the garden were more important than [the] Chernobyl [explosion]”, said one of the lines we heard from Ténéré Arte’s adaptation of Chernobyl Prayer. ‘They plant carefully. They eat cucumbers, they’re fine. The stomach doesn’t hurt, nothing shines in the dark.’
‘What is this radiation?’ asked another. ‘Is it white, is it black? Do they show it in the movies? No. I think they invented it.’
And finally, two Chernobyl sellers at the market have a chat, one of them crying, ‘Come, get Chernobyl apples!’, the other advising her to keep the fruit’s origins quiet: ‘Who’s gonna buy apples from Chernobyl?’
‘They’ll buy it’, the first seller responds confidently. ‘For their mother-in-law, for their boss.’
This food poisoning theme also got picked up in Ukrainian folk singer Iryna Muha’s repertoire. ‘I will go to the forest to get red berries for my mother/ for her to eat and rejoice,’ went one song. ’Then I’ll go to the forest and pick blackberries for my mother-in-law/ for her to choke on them.’
Meanwhile in the room black fruit, supposedly ‘from Chernobyl’, was served for the braver ones to taste. These were elements from artist Colombian artist Omar Castaneda’s Food of War tower exhibited in Ukraine’s capital city Kiev as well as Berlin, Germany, and Burgos in Spain.
While working on this art project, Kiev-based artist Zinaida Lihacheva said she was wary about what she ate on her first visit to the region. ‘In the beginning, we didn’t eat, we checked everything,’ she admitted. But then she and the other group of artists gave in, as people in the town invited them for dinner. ‘You eat with your heart and mind, not your stomach.’
Five years ago, Chernobyl had 2,000 inhabitants. Now, there are 500 people left there. Visitors rarely go and most of them are foreign. For Ukrainians, this is a painful episode in their country’s history, which they try to avoid. Even grandchildren refuse to visit their grandparents at Chernobyl.
The explosion was instrumental to USSR’s fall, argued Sunday Times foreign editor Peter Conradi, launching his book Who Lost Russia? at the panel. ‘What killed USSR was Ukraine’s decision to leave, and that was partly because of Chernobyl.’
But though the feeling of the country toward Chernobyl appears to have been negative, some people benefited from the explosion’s aftermath. Western Ukrainians came to work at the factory in exchange for free flats and salaries four times higher than at home. Lucy Ash, a BBC journalist who visited Chernobyl in 1996, recounted how a woman had told her, ‘I’m really proud to work in a place that’s famous all over the world’.
Clouded Lands and a New Cold War was part of the ongoing cultural programme of concerts, performances, dance nights and talks at Dash Arts, Rich Mix, Bethnal Green.