Under a dim light on the second floor of the Whitworth Art Gallery sits the bronze casting of a 35mm Konvas Avtomat – a symbolic resurfacing of the camera Ukrainian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko used to document the Chernobyl explosion in 1986.
In the days following the accident, Shevchenko used that camera to intimately record the confusion and solemnity at Chernobyl. It was only later, while editing, that he noticed alarming distortions in the film. It soon became clear that the static noise and ghostly flashes were the first visible effects of the radiation.
The film survived, its creators did not. Shevchenko died in the following months and, for the last 25 years, his camera has been buried somewhere outside Kiev — dangerously radioactive and altogether forgotten. Except by Jane and Louise Wilson, that is.
It seems a foreboding coincidence that, from a perspective directly in front of the camera, the three protruding lenses give the abstract appearance of a gas mask.
It is with Shevchenko’s camera and film, Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks, that the Jane and Louise Wilson exhibition begins its investigation of the aftereffects of man-made devastation. The twins’ own film, The Toxic Camera, contemplates the Chernobyl disaster with the assistance of interviews with surviving members of Shevchenko’s camera crew. The film includes scenes recorded in Kiev and Orford Ness — a former hydrogen bomb testing site here in the UK.
Nearby is Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum), a series of eight photographs, impassively featuring the desertion of Pripyat — a city within the Chernobyl exclusion zone that was once ‘considered one of the finest places to live in the USSR’ . The crumbling remains of a gymnasium and a theatre, among other rooms, are quietly disturbing. Perhaps the only consolation is the seemingly incongruous presence of thriving plant life outside the rooms. The high-resolution and large size of the photographs allow viewers to approach and ‘step into the scene’. If you count yourself among the growing number of eccentrics hoping for a zombie-apocalypse, this opportunity to bask in the emptiness and decay of such a world is not to be missed.
The Wilson sisters continue their exploration of the consequences of man-made devastation with a set of installations that conceptually, and almost clinically, examine the CCTV footage and events surrounding the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in 2010.
One of these is False Positive and False Negatives, a collection of sixteen screenprints of Jane and Louise wearing dazzle camouflage — the use of shapes painted on the face to muddle facial recognition technology. It is, perhaps, an impressive meditation on the invasive nature of CCTV recordings — though most of the suspected assassins caught on tape have still not been brought to justice.
As visitors wander from room to room within the Whitworth Art Gallery, they’ll notice a continuous presence of yardsticks. It can be easy to dismiss the impact of their meaning as artistic superficiality, but at least will yourself to contemplate Blind Landing — a representation of our reliance on technology. After witnessing the conflicting results of Chernobyl and CCTV’s role in the Al-Mabhouh assassination, it’ll be worth considering, “Has our reliance on technology gone too far?”
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