Alice Miceli: Projeto Chernobyl @Americas Society

JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 radiographs produced between 2006-2011, displayed in light boxes and exhibited in a darkened room where they are recessed into five walls in the first-floor gallery. Dimensions are not given but most are approximately 30×40 centimeters or the reverse. An anteroom features two vitrines on the South wall, each case with four black-and-white photographs of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (inkjet prints, dimensions not given) along with a 10-minute video interview with the artist on a monitor on the East wall across from a panel of wall text. (Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: When the Brazilian environmental artist Alice Miceli was deciding how to address the after-effects of the deadly 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine, she could have chosen any number of traditional photographic means—portraits of the survivors and their descendants; drone surveillance of the 30-kilometer exclusion zone (now teeming with wildlife) or of the plant itself, now a sarcophagus encased in concrete; a survey of Pripyat, where most of the plant’s workers lived and now a ghost city; or rephotography of the unfolding disaster as it was transmitted via the Soviet, European, and American media.

All of these approaches, she soon discovered, had already been attempted, and in some cases exhaustively.

Instead, wanting to illuminate what had not been seen before—and could not be seen otherwise—she adopted the unorthodox (and, for her, unfamiliar) medium of gamma-ray radiography. Related to x-ray radiography, it’s a technique designed to capture the shortest wave-lengths of the spectrum. Gamma rays are part of the radiation diet that we absorb daily from the sun and in increased amounts on a jet flight. The Chernobyl explosion and core meltdown, however, released such dangerous levels that some parts of the area will be off limits to visitors for the foreseeable future. (Other areas have been deemed so safe for short stays that a Chernobyl tourism industry has sprung up for risk-prone adventurers.)

Visiting the contaminated area in 2006, Miceli continued to go there over the next five years, leaving films on the ground and in trees as traps for the lingering radiation. She would then retrieve these negatives weeks or months later and process them. The images that resulted were therefore beyond her control, cumulative and atmospheric rather than specific to time and place.

Organized by Gabriela Rangel and Diana Flatto, the installation has a sacramental quality. You enter the darkened room through a curtain and are confronted with rows of pale gray, backlighted negatives recessed into the wall, like pieces of stained glass or the chest x-rays of a ghost. This hushed build-up makes the actual images even more of a let down. What little there is to see consists of some cloudy, indistinct squiggles (grasses? hairs?), a few moiré patterns, some shimmering waves, or faint lines that indicate bars or squares.

If Miceli intended her radiographs as a political weapon or an environmental warning shot, she has misfired. One would never suspect from these tasteful, poetic images that gamma rays can be fatal. The black-and-white photographs of Pripyat in the anteroom (and in the handy catalog) may not be as novel an artistic tool as radiography but they communicate more effectively the ominous air that continues to surround the mere mention of the name Chernobyl.

The event was pivotal in the downfall of the Soviet regime. After the bloody fiasco of the Afghanistan invasion in 1980, it demoralized the national population about the basic competence of its own government. Russian and Ukrainian writers and artists have reflected on the event over the last two decades in numerous ways, enough to have created a Chernobyl genre. Alexander Mindatze’s Innocent Saturday (2011) is the best-known of several films. Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her oral histories of the workers who cleaned up the plant (some 600,000) and the residents who lived in Pripyat. There are even video games about nuclear contamination. HBO’s outstanding mini-series Chernobyl was a late entry in this epic reckoning.

Rangel writes in the catalog that Miceli shows us “the materiality of the poison in the atmosphere.” It could be that she has, and it could be that she hasn’t. There’s no way of telling. Only a radiologist or a physicist would be able to read the signs she has left us and interpret their meanings. Art audiences will be rightfully unsure or completely baffled.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Alice Miceli is represented by Galerie Nara Roesler in Rio de Janeiro (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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