Calvert 22’s four-part Power and Architecture exhibition season continues this month with Part 2 Dead Space and Ruins. The exhibition shows work by four photographers all of whom explore the detritus of formerly grand architecture abandoned after the fall of communism across the vast landscape of the former Soviet Union.
There are five works in this exhibition but the two most haunting pieces are Eric Lusito’s Trace of the Soviet Empire, 2009 and Danila Tkachenko’s series Restricted Areas (2013 – 2015). Lusito undertook an extensive campaign to seek out and then photograph abandoned Soviet military bases from eastern Europe to eastern Siberia. The end of the Second World War saw the USSR emerge as one of the world’s two superpowers: celebration of victory over Nazi Germany and this new global might was manifest in visual arts and architecture. Lusito’s large-scale, colour images reveal these obsolete sites of military power now to be fragile, derelict shells of their former glory – empty fragments of vanished convictions, emblems of past geopolitical tensions. These were buildings supposed not to be seen but nonetheless intended to carry out the operations of power.
But they are powerless to the relentless and probing gaze of Lusito’s camera. Mostly we see abandoned interiors – a gym with an exercise chart still in place – an old function room with murals peeling off the wall. Swathes of bone dry, cracked paint peel off these walls in great shards. The sheer geographic scale of the former soviet bloc and the contours of past political tensions are apparent in two photographs taken in Mongolia. Border disputes between China and Russia go back at least to the seventeenth century and the Soviet era was no different: Lusito captures the isolation of the 44th Mixed Air Corps, Mongolia – a military building constructed in 1982, with a slogan emblazed across its side reading ‘ Glory to the Communist Party of Soviet Union’. After 1955 when Khrushchev condemned the ‘excesses’ of Stalin’s Empire Style of architecture, Soviet buildings became characterised by geometrical austerity, military buildings in particular being designed with maximum economy and starkness.
Like Lusito, Danila Tkachenko, a Russian photographer, embarked on a photographic journey to document post-Soviet buildings, now long abandoned. Restricted Areas comprises a series of beautiful, beguilingly tranquil images of buildings and infrastructure, all photographed in deep winter. These isolated, frozen structures of iron, steel and concrete now float in whiteness. Once serving as landmarks of Soviet ambition – both military and technological – they now stand as the rack and ruin of utopia. Tkachenko’s images are simple, full frontal compositions that nod to documentary photography but have a mesmerising aesthetic of their own.
Vahram Aghasyan also explores the derelict buildings in his series Ghost City (2005 – 2007), photographing a ‘town’ in Armenia called Gyumri, a place hit by a devastating 198 earthquake in which thousands of people lost their homes. The Kremlin’s response was to build new ones – primarily blocks of flats – for those people who were displaced. Vast sums of money were invested in building these blocks just outside the town; yet the project was never completed and today concretes shells lie derelict and unfinished. Aghasyan displays a series of 10 digitally-manipulated photographic images: meticulously photo-shopping flood water around each structure (including extremely realistic reflections) – an act of manipulation that at once isolates each building as if it were a floating city, and points towards an impending watery grave.
Power and Architecture, Calvert 22’s season exploring utopian public space, is proving to be a thoughtful and potent series of exhibitions. Look out for Parts 3 and Parts 4 later this year: these are events not to be missed.
Power and Architecture Part 2: Dead Space and Ruins runs at Calvert 22 Gallery until 7 August 2016.