Alan G. Brake | Essays

Dust to Dust

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site XII (Dust To Dust), Kazakhstan 2011

Nadav Kander’s series of photographs of de-mapped nuclear sites in Kazakhstan, called Dust, helps make visible the physical and temporal destruction of the former Soviet military’s presence in the region. Set in the towns of Kurchatov and Priozersk, the Polygon testing site, and the poisoned Aral Sea, the series serves an archeological function, bringing to the surface a history that its perpetrators tried to keep buried. The towns served as centers for nuclear testing and missile development, and the population of Kurchatov was secretly monitored to measure the effects radiation on humans. Kander first came to the sites the way many us of visit exotic places, briefly from our desktops via Google Earth. Cordoned off from by the Russian and Kazakh militaries since at least the early 1990s, these places show the now intertwined legacies of entropy and abandonment. Equipped with a radiation suit and a Geiger counter, Kander sought to capture through film and digital photography what satellite imagery could only begin to suggest: something of the human dimension and environmental degradation of these hidden and largely forgotten places. A selection of the images are on view at Flowers Gallery in New York through May 7. 

Hatje Cantz recently published a book of the series, which is divided into three sections, by location. The first covers Kurchatov and the Polygon Test site, beginning with a diorama of the site with miniature houses and tiny tanks and planes. Then come expansive landscapes interrupted by large concrete monoliths created to withstand blasts and crumbling masonry buildings half cleared by the bulldozers that erased most of the region’s buildings as the Russian Military retreated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One picture shows a cluster of crucifixes dotting the horizon line, which are nearly obscured by what appear to be power plants or chemical factories in the distance. There are no people in Kander’s Dust photographs, but traces of humanity are everywhere.

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site I (After The Event), Kazakhstan 2011

The section on Priozersk includes military installations, some with missiles displayed on pedestals like trophies. An abandoned building holds cheerful, naïve murals of cosmonauts, rockets, and shooting stars rendered in clumsy brushstrokes, and brightly colored theater props of flags and more rockets. Perhaps the most iconic image in the entire series is a statute of a female nude perched contrapposto atop a cylindrical base overlooking a hazy gray lake that merges with the sky. At first glance, the figure looks like a classical ruin, but the romance is undermined at a closer viewing, when the statue's leg is revealed to be a rusted metal rod protruding from a crumbling concrete base.

Priozersk XIV (I Was Told She Once Held An Oar), Kazakhstan 2011

The Aral Sea section is the most spare. Landscapes predominate. The book closes with a series of images of the barren former seabed, exposed by decades of irrigation and left toxic by pollution and remnant salt. The cemetery image provides a kind of hinge between the human and environmental themes in Dust. In closing the book, Kander writes: “I wonder how the ruins we see here on these pages will speak to future generations.” It is an oddly optimistic thought—that there will even be future generations—given what he documents in Dust. In an interview following the opening of his New York exhibition, Kander described what drew him to the sites: “I think it’s the secrecy. I think finding out that a satellite has photographed cities that have never been seen on the map before is incredibly enticing. It had everything that I’m about written all over it. This idea of man altered landscapes, ruins in landscape, of landscapes telling us about our memories, showing us our memory. Showing us possibly more about our humanity than human beings show.”

The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing), Kazakhstan 2011

All pictures © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery London and New York

Nadav Kander: Dust is published by Hatje Cantz. 

Posted in: Photography

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