During the Cold War’s nuclear arms race, the Russian military tested hundreds of atomic bombs and long distance weapons near the closed cities of Priozersk and Kurtchatov, located in eastern Kazakstan. The testing, which took place at highly restricted sites known as “Moscow 10” and “The Polygon,” allowed scientists to observe the catastrophic effects of radiation on the oblivious local population, nearby livestock, and the surrounding landscape. When the nuclear testing program ended in 1989, these small cities were demolished to preserve their military secrets. They were not identified on official maps and remained under the mainstream radar until they were “discovered” through Google Earth.
When Nadav Kander, an Israeli-born, London-based photographer who is interested in the “aesthetics of destruction,” learned of these secret cities, he traveled to eastern Kazakstan to document their ruins. Wearing white overalls equipped with Geiger counters to protect him from the worst of the invisible dangers, he photographed the post-apocalyptic landscapes he came across: a field at the Polygon test site below a radioactively pink sunset; former officers’ housing reduced to rubble; the statue of a young woman atop a red-brown pile of rocks gazing out over the bleak Lake Balkhash. The resulting photo series, titled Dust, is now on view in at New York’s Flowers Gallery.
“I find the ruin, in its many guises, beautiful, as have many artists before me,” Kander writes in a book accompanying the exhibition. “But it is the combination of beauty and destruction, beauty and melancholy, that really attracts me.” As Kander acknowledges, this is a common attraction. It’s what’s behind the perverse, ubiquitous, and undeniably transfixing photographic genre of ruin porn, to which these images squarely belong. (Ruin porn has become such a ubiquitous internet trope that behavioral scientists have investigated the widespread interest in it.)
If the photographs in Dust were actual porn, they would be the studio-produced magazine kind that puts a glossy sheen on taboo fantasies — they play into global anxieties about nuclear disaster. And if ruins were porn actors, the large-scale ruins of these closed cities would be superstars; the implications of their dense, once-secret backstories are massive. Unlike, say, the nostalgic ruins of abandoned movie theaters (softcore), Kander’s subjects are the most cynical and sinister any ruin-seeker could hope to find. But he doesn’t emphasize their grit and ugliness with low production values the way Detroit’s many amateur ruin pornographers like to do. Instead, they’re shot in warm, glowing light, and the compositions are painterly, perfectly arranged, casting the desolation in a dark beauty. They make these crumbling buildings and patchy fields seem strangely polished and picturesque.
“As I pondered these burnt and fallen ruins –– edifices that had been built specifically to test how much they could stand –– I was reminded of Albert Speer’s notion of ‘ruin value,’ the idea that buildings should be designed to eventually fall into aesthetically pleasing ruins, demonstrating to future onlookers the might of previous generations,” Kander writes. It’s this “aesthetically pleasing” aspect that gives his photographs their uncomfortable, almost too-crisp quality. Lacking any trace of human life, they don’t evoke the reality of nuclear testing and war so much as a science-fiction fantasy of it.
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