Echo of Silence
Project description

Chernobyl releases many appalling associations, carrying the stamp of fear, the stamp of desperation and the stamp of depression; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of contaminated food, and a feeling of helplessness and of having being abandoned. Chernobyl stands for the crisis of our human civilization; it questions our belief in progress and in technological achievements. Deeply passionate judgements on the merits of nuclear technology, political accusations about the absence of safety measures and the lack of information, statistics of increasing numbers of illnesses and deaths due to ionising radiation, new scientific data about future genetic damage, disagreements over appropriate measures to help the victims who suffered as a result of the catastrophe - all these issues determine the character of the public debate in many countries. In the meantime, the catastrophe continues - the terribly quiet tragedy of the "accident" and the "residual risk" of radionuclides, which, undetectable to the senses, continue to have grave effects on life.
So how do people live in Belarus where approximately 70% of the radioactive fallout settled, and there is almost no way of avoiding the consequences? How much strength and energy, hope and faith, oblivion and taboos does one need here not just to survive in the physical sense, but also to keep one's soul and spirit alive? What effect is this permanent existence with the disaster, with the "radiation zone", having, and what effect will it have on the scale of society's cultural values in the unimaginably long period yet to come?
This far from complete range of existentialist issues was the basis for the Goethe-Institut's project Life With The Zone, which developed in three directions: a documentary entitled Oasis directed by Yuriy Khashchevatskiy; a German-Belarusian theatrical experiment entitled Pomni ("Remember") involving children from evacuated families; and an exhibition by the Belarusian photoartists Sergey Kozhemyakin, Galina Moskaleva, Vladimir Shakhlevich and Igor Savchenko. In cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, they dealt with these issues, and attempted to get closer to the "zone" by using the codes of art, which allow the viewer to get closer on an emotional level via the expressions of the artists' perceptions and feelings, without referring to statistics and science, as their reserved distance dissolves the human being and his fate. Using the modern language of art, the authors are attempting to make the viewer think and evoke contemplation and sympathy in order to prevent the human side from being ignored or forgotten due to time and space.
The project was completed in a short space of time -just three months. The exhibition's title Echo of Silence appeared as a result of the work done, and it was decided that the visual works should be extended and made more profound by adding the artists' own annotations.
The four photoartists made all other decisions regarding their approaches to the broad topic of Life With The Zone themselves. Three of them felt compelled to go into the evacuation zone personally (for the first time) to let it pass through them. They then reshaped and recorded it through the dangerously silent lens of ionising radiation in lifeless villages, deserted streets, and pillaged and abandoned homes where the former residents' personal belongings still remained. However, they also met people who are living there despite the ban.
Galina Moskaleva proposed her own highly personal approach. Her photographic works are born out of her innermost feelings and experiences and the way she reinterprets them. Her works and creative process are a component part of her search, an attempt to respond to what is happening. By experimenting in the darkroom, she lets her subconscious take her beyond herself, her imagination flies through self-portraits, and then touches down in pictures of the "zone" on photographic paper. It is as if she is trying to converse with the dangerous reality of the forbidden zone.
Vladimir Shakhlevich emphasises that working on the project defined his attitude to the catastrophe, both as a personal threat and a global one for mankind. His outlook led him to use photocollage techniques which permit him to depict the destruction and development of our civilization, which is hard to imagine. Contorted biblical allusions and icon-like insinuations appear, forming from snatches of day-to-day life. They can be perceived as a forewarning, a recollection, or a call to come to our senses. It is as if his rectangular icons are asking whether humanity has strayed off the path of righteousness, the path of God, by splitting the atom. As he works in the laboratory, he sees himself as a surgeon making incisions into the living flesh of photography. The resulting substance is a new reality surrounded by an energy field, which begins to exist apart from the artist.
In his series Phantom Sensations, Sergey Kozhemyakin strives to convey his intuitive subconscious feelings through a collection of subtly interlinked objects. The complexity of the disaster is shown using quotations and references to Picasso's Guernica, the Chernobyl chronicles and the Bible, which he translates selectively into the language of photography and collage. Sergey Kozhemyakin magnifies the tiny figure of a damage control
climbing a ladder onto the roof of the reactor block, as if underlining the tragedy of one individual exposing himself to the relentless echo of Chernobyl. That echo resounds in Galina Moskaleva's portraits too, with their flashing spirals in the bodies of young girls. It can also be seen in the motionless and questioning eyes of children undergoing a thyroid operation.
Igor Savchenko chose a different approach. Within his four walls, he worked like a somewhat detached beholder, keeping his emotions in check, moving away from the localised tragedy, and creating a fictitious reality. He is already convinced that it is not imaginary. He constantly steps to one side in order to shed light onto his view of the world, the endless conflict between light and dark, and the silent fight for the truth. It is as if he has his doubts and wishes to verify what is going on. This condition is also expressed in his text:
We no longer have
A constant flow of sunlight.
Light appears to us
As a sequence of transient swirls.
Everything around us is lit up for a brief instant.
The world picture shimmers.
But moments of lucidity and darkness
Still alternate too fast
For us to notice them.
We still believe
The visible picture is steady.
Though in actual fact
Swirls of sunlight
Blow past much more rarely and less regularly.
Darkness has been gathering.
Uncertainty keeps on growing.
The visual picture
Is gradually being replaced
By its speculative model.
But this we can only guess at
From indirect signs -
Inexplicable and sudden failures
While photographing at moments which do not coincide
With the latest solar swirl.
We ourselves fail to notice that
Our techniques of perceiving the world
Are changing.
We ourselves are changing.
The consequences are not yet clear.
Igor Savchenko February 1996
It is striking that none of the artists' works leave impressions of aggression or fervent protest. Perhaps the four artists' sheer proximity to the consequences of the catastrophe is preventing this? Perhaps their works reflect the dangerous radioactive silence that reigns in the zone? This silence pervades the dialogue going on between the works in the exhibition hall, a soundless dialogue so much like the echo of silence. It transpires that the traces of Chernobyl are a tragic bridge which allows you to return to yourself.
The Echo of Silence exhibition was first put on at the Belarusian National Historical and Cultural Museum from April 18 to May 13, 1996 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. 

Vera Bagaliantz, Goethe-lnstitut Minsk, July 1996