Review: Dangerous exposures – Jane & Louise Wilson at the Whitworth

Kate Feld

Jane and Louise Wilson explore Chernobyl and its aftermath at The Whitworth

Chernobyl. For those of us old enough to remember the 1986 nuclear accident, that one word conjures the jittery miasma of the Cold War conjoined with our collective fears of nukes and radiation, of invisible isotopes poisoning the earth, sinking into our skin and painting our bones with death. Turner Prize-nominated artists Jane and Lousie Wilson, intrepid mappers of the dark places in our minds, investigate this event and what it means to us in a haunting series that can be seen for the first time Whitworth Art Gallery – but only until the end of this month.

The Toxic Camera recreates the incredible story of documentary filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko and his crew, some of the first people on site mere days after the meltdown of reactor 4, to shoot Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks (itself also on display at the Whitworth). Shevchenko didn’t understand the danger he’d placed himself in until he was processing the film and realised that the source of a weird audiovisual distortion on the film was radiation itself, a realisation so chilling it made his hair stand on end. He and his editor died in the months after the accident. Shevchenko’s camera had become so radioactive that it had to be buried in a toxic waste dump.

A man crumples silently to the ground. The camera observes and moves on, leaving us stricken in its wake

Shot on location in the exclusion zone, as well as at a similarly deserted Orford Ness, where British military bombs were tested, Jane and Louise Wilson’s film is a stunning record of a landscape where nature has run rampant, and where the quiet is so total the sound of each apple falling from a tree is like a gunshot. Russet apples that no one will ever eat lie in piles on the ground or float in an ominously black stream. A man stands in the forest and crumples silently to the ground. The camera observes quietly and moves on, leaving us stricken in its wake.

Yardsticks intrude into several shots, a trope that the Wilsons employ in many artworks but to especially good effect in Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum), a powerful series of large format photographs of abandoned Pripyat, a town within the exclusion zone where reactor workers lived with their families. In a kindergarten classroom, a cheerful bulletin board display fades into dust behind rows of empty desks. Another room has decayed to the point where it almost stops being a room, floor buckling, two basketball hoops the only clues as to what it once was.

A few sculptural works on the yardstick theme and a bronze cast of the camera nicely broaden the scope of the artistic inquiry. The only works that seem out of place here are the film Face Scripting – What did the building see? about the assassination of a Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel room and its accompanying photo series; though technically interesting they’re perhaps more limited in their aims, and their presence diffuses the overall impact. The exhibition winds somewhat confusingly around the gallery, and inside the screening area for The Toxic Camera, reverb from sound echoing around the vast space, combined with thickly-accented English, made speech difficult to understand at times.

But these are small quibbles: this exhibition is one of those that stays with you for days, creeping back into your mind at odd times. I keep revisiting images of a boy testing the twist of wire at the perimeter fence, pushing speculatively against it as three friends wait with a bike in the background. Their presence in the film conjures the children of Pripyat who were allowed to play outside while the reactor burned, but also the present pushing impatiently at the past. Scientists say the 30km exclusion zone at Chernobyl will not be suitable for human habitation again for 600 years. How long will the fence hold?

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