TAISIA KOROTKOVA ON THE PROJECT CLOSED RUSSIA
The works that you will see at this exhibition are the result of many years of consideration of the period when their author was born and grew up. I hope that my commentaries will help you to understand why I took up this subject, and also to understand the pictures' subjects. I will go through them in chronological order.
And so, the year 2001.
During the summer holidays, on a journey around Issyk-Kul Lake (Kyrgyzstan), I stumbled across an abandoned Soviet uranium mine. I was stunned by the magnificence of the landscape; the ruins of this late Stalinist construc-tion stood among the multi-colored slag-heaps of extracted ore. A small Russian cemetery that neighbored on it made an even greater impression on me, however. It wasn't hard to work out that this was the final resting place for the remains of those who had dug this mine and worked in it. In order to give a clearer impression of the solitude of those Soviet ruins, I would like to add a few words about Kyrgyzstan in the year 2001. At that point, there had already been several disturbances on nationalist grounds in the country, almost all the Germans had left, having lived there since the 18th century, the Jews had left and the Russians were continuing to leave. The names of the streets, cities and towns, including those originally built by Russians, were being replaced with Kyrgyz names. In other words, the country was at the peak of a process national self-identification. And against this background, the results of the work of the Soviet colonizers looked like an authentic labor of Sisyphus. Later I found out that the mine had been closed back in the mid-1980s because it had insufficient uranium content, but first impressions, as they say, are all-important, and when I began to read up on other sites built within the borders of the USSR, often their deaths weren't natural, they were unexpected, linked to the collapse of the Soviet state.
The year 2008. Following a visit to my "Technology" exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, my old friend, a nuclear physicist, impressed by what he had seen, invited me to his experimental physics research institute. There I saw interiors of stunning beauty, packed with cabling like a spider's web, the remains of equipment of the 1960s, iron stairways and walkways botched and soldered together using any lump of metal that came to hand, and all of this surrounding an actual, working accelerator. Back then I was amazed by the enthusiasm of those working at the institute — they were few, but they were inspired. Even an uninformed observer could see that the half-dead equipment was in a lamentable condition.
The year 2010. The beginning of work on sketches united by the theme of Soviet institutes. I unsuccessfully attempted to get into Protvino, and just as unsuccessfully searched for material on the internet. I realized that a humble, curious investigator such as myself couldn't get into real sites, everything was classified and you needed security clearance. I decided to make do with what my friend and I had shot at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics (ITEP).
Often, during work on a picture, it's very important for me to find, strange as it might seem, one or two key words that will form the skeleton that will hold the entire body of the painting series together. Putting the "Closed Russia" project together, specifically in the work with the ITEP sketches, I formulated them as "romantic ruins", referencing, in this way, the landscape painting of the 17th century. I was interested in transferring the melancholic-contemplative mood possessed by the pictures of this period to the depictions of the interiors of the experimental physics research institute. The sketches were drawn quickly, within about a month and a half, but there were almost no people in them. I thought that I would later add idlers wandering around in contemplation, but for some reason it didn't work out. I was left with a feeling that the project hadn't matured, and I hid it away in a file.
The year 2012. In the process of all manner of discussions of this theme that interested me, I recognized much that was new and, as a result, again headed off on a journey across the expanses of the internet in search of fresh material for pictures. Among other things, I found a host of articles about sites left on the borders of the former USSR. Reading them, I realized that finally I could return to my impressions of 2001, and use them in my work.
The more I read of what I'd found, the better I understood that questions concerning the efficiency of the expenditure by the Soviet state of human lives, questions concerning the value for that state and its heirs of the results of the labor of millions of people, all these questions that arose before me back in 2001, could and should be expressed in pictures. That is how four works were begun, titled "Borders of the Empire." They were generalized images of the East, the South, the West and the North of the former USSR painted in the ruins-landscape genre. Compositionally, the pictures hint, in accordance with the subject, at certain models from the history of art. "The North" referenced socialist realist pictures about the conquerors of the polar region; "The West" referenced either the uncompleted or the already semi-derelict "ideal city" as a symbol of the unrealized "radiant future" that communism would bring; "The East" recalls engravings of Fuji; "The South", in turn, recalls European landscapes of the 18th century, where against the background of magnificent architecture of bygone ages people wonder about and animals graze. In order to make the spaces that I invented convincing, in each of the works I used my long years of experience in the painting of studies from nature in different conditions, so "The East" is a spring morning, "The South is a midday in summer, "The West" is an autumn evening, "The North" is a winter night. "The North" is dedicated to a cemetery for submarines in the Murmansk Region; in "The East" we see the ruins of a military town in Bechevinskaya Bay, a cemetery for ships and abandoned bunkers for submarines and nature; in "The South" we see a former Uranium mine on the southern shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake and a construction akin to a ziggurat, Terra-3, a Soviet laser weapon. "The West", for the most part, is made up of the ruins of a Daryal radar facility, the people in the foreground being marauders making off with what remains of the scrap metal. The other details, such as the mounds of abandoned gas masks, the dilapidated propaganda on the walls, the radar stations, the service lines between underground bunkers sticking out of the ground — I won't specifically identify all of these, because their names are legion, and you can find them right across the entire territory of the former USSR.
At the beginning of work on a new subject, I usually try and find an op-portunity to interact personally with people who are involved professionally in the processes that I am depicting, or to find blogs where the corresponding subjects are discussed. Working on "Borders" I read many reminiscences linked to the period from the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s. For the most part these were from internet communities of people who lived or worked in closed military towns that were hurriedly broken up during this period. What I read made a fairly strong impression on me, because this was a vital history of the destruction not only of the country's heritage, into which during the Soviet period vast resources were invested, but also of the destruction of a multitude of human fates. Of course, an artist always has an opportunity to express themselves critically on any particular social or political issue, but I think that in painting, in a picture, it should be done in a fairly restrained manner, in order to prevent the image turning into a programmatic poster or a mere illustration of a certain idea. In my work on "Ruins", at some point, I realized that I had gone into some sort of thematic and plastic "tailspin", where the statement was becoming akin, in essence, to some sort of poster. At that point I decided to add a third thematic line which was intended, at least to some extent, to balance out the preceding two and was devoted to what could be preserved and could survive in the transitional period, and what might even successfully develop in the here an now. Thus, the sketches for "The Production and Burial of Spent Nuclear Fuels (SNF)" appeared. As the basis for these works I used the photographic reports of Siberian bloggers who took part in a "tour group" to the Mayak chemicals plant. Rosatom, the Russian state atomic energy corporation, is proud of its achievements in this field and everything looks beautiful and striking; in essence, Russia is resolving its issues in the processing and storage of SNF using the most cutting edge technologies. In short, on closer inspection against the background of the global situation in this field, we can see that the grounds for such optimism are in fact limited, as we have yet to invent a method for the total processing of SNF or a 100-percent safe methodology for the storage of this waste. When all of the sketches had been completed, I came to the conclusion that each of the three sections to a greater or lesser extent, tells us of aging, death and disintegration: "The Borders of the Empire" is the disintegration of the remains of the USSR military shield, which nature is growing through, "ITEP" is about the aging and the dying out of the heritage of Soviet experi-mental physics, and with "The Production and Burial of Spent Nuclear Fuels" the name speaks for itself. It's amazing that even superficially this process looks almost ritualistic: the completion of the heat-generating installation recalls a human skull, and the trailers in which the spent nuclear fuel is brought to be processed and buried look like coffins.
The year 2013. Work on "The North" is completed and sent to the "Lenin Breaks Ice" exhibition in Murmansk on the Lenin icebreaker. I was worried that it might appear there to be too flat in its content, like buttery butter, to use the Russian expression. Quite the opposite turned out to be the case, however. In its decoration, the ice-breaker used pictures and panels from the 1960s-1980s era, telling of the heroes who mastered the Far North and of the former glory of the ice-breaker itself. My picture was, as it were, a logical continuation of those panels. The result was a kind of game, as if I had headed off on a voyage on the ship, as artists had done before me, and had painted a landscape that was timely for 2013. I was convinced that the subject that I had chosen on the internet was authentic when it coincided with the real impressions that I received in the town of Teriberk, formerly a major settlement on the shore of the Barents Sea. There I saw such destruction that I couldn't even bring myself to photograph it. I had the sense that I had found myself at a funeral. Of a population that had numbered 2,000 at the end of the 1980s, about 900 remained. The skeletons of ships and boats abandoned all along the coastline, the semi-derelict houses in which people continued to live all of this was a powerful reminder of black and white films about the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War), and it was hard to believe that this was Russia in the 21st century.
The year 2014. When work on all the different sections of the project was coming to an end, I thought that it would be interesting for the spectator not only to learn the history of the creation of the pictures, but also to hear the opinions of the professionals with whom I consulted during the working process. I put together an interview which several people answered in written form, and I suggest that you read the interview, along with a series of what I believe to be fascinating materials from the internet that were used during the project's working process.
TAISIA KOROTKOVA, 2015
While creating this project Taisia Korotkova used various data in world wide web concerning secret objects in the USSR, those are factory of chemical substances in Novosibirsk, production association "Mayak", factory of mines and chemicals in Zheleznogorsk, garrison town Finval in Bechevinskaya Bay, vessels' cemetry in Avachinskaya Bay (Kamchatka Peninsula), tunnel for sub-marines in Pavlovskaya Bay (Gulf of Peter the Great), SPRN-RADAR "Daryal-U" in the town of Balkhash-9, submarine cemetry in Nezametnaya Bay (Murmansk region), antiaircraft emplacement "Terra-3" (Sary-Shagan firing range), uranic mine in the setllement Kadzhi Sai, ITEP and a lot of other data.