Arthur Bondar, Shadows of Wormwood

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2016 (here). Hardcover, 136 pages, with 64 black and white photographs. In an edition of 250 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: This year, the world marked the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the most infamous incident of radioactive contamination in human history-to-date. Not only has this tragedy impacted the local area, it has widely influenced and educated the larger global community about the perils of nuclear technology run amok. Its social and ecological consequences will continue to affect generations far into the future.

In the days following the catastrophe, 115,000 people were forced to evacuate immediately, and the authorities demarcated a 30-kilometer radius zone that became accessible only with official permits. Now commonly known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or simply the Zone, it included the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

The Ukrainian photographer Arthur Bondar was just three years old when the nuclear accident happened, and as he was growing up, the tragedy and its consequences were ever present in his life. Bondar has spent the past eight years taking trips to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and photographing the area. The region remains largely uninhabited, with the exception of a small minority of residents who refused to leave. He has also collected documents and photographs from various personal archives of the many people who used to work or live there. The results of this project were recently self-published as a photobook titled Shadows of Wormwood.

The first image in the book – a blurry black and white photograph of tall and unusually thin trees – appears right on the end papers, immersing us immediately into its ghostly atmosphere. It is followed by a shot depicting a row of transmission towers, and another showing the winter forest behind a metal fence, with a finger pointing toward the woods. This sequence of images, connecting nature, human activities, and danger, serves as an introduction to Bondar’s ethereal storyline. As we flip to the next page, the photographer’s name and the book’s title appear in grey on a black background.

The title of the book cleverly plays on the word “wormwood” – which is what “chernobyl” means in the Ukrainian language. A number of people have also made a connection between “chernobyl” and the Wormwood star mentioned in the Bible. A passage in the Book of Revelation describes a burning star that fell upon rivers: “The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter”. While the reference to the Bible might be questionable, the associations with the word “chernobyl” are undeniably rather grievous and heavy.

Bondar’s eerie black and white photographs don’t follow any linear narrative, as his intention wasn’t to document direct reality. As he said in one of his interviews: “For me, the Exclusion Zone is a mystery. I want to show the mystical aspects of this land, where every inch is full of suffering and sorrow”. Bondar shows us very little of specificity and offers no explanations, instead creating an overall feeling of unease. There are images of abandoned places, now taken over by virginal nature, and most of the photos were taken during winter, reinforcing the lack of life.

One of photographs depicts a view of the desolated town from the sky – in its surreal surroundings, building blocks now coexist with densely growing trees (most of them are unnaturally higher than the buildings). Another photo shows a rusty looking boat inexplicably stuck in the wild forest. Occasionally, we see the few residents (and their dogs) who decided to stay, living in the shadow of the abandoned nuclear power plant. They seem busy with their usual routines: a group of people walking in the dark on the snow, probably for ice fishing; a man standing next to his house holding the antlers of a deer; and two men on a boat, perhaps fishing, with a yawning dog on shore waiting for them.

Bondar has also included archive photographs of families and their daily lives, probably taken prior to the accident, with adults and kids standing on the stairs of a school and a young man on a roof with a city view behind him. There are also a copy of a declassified urgent message reporting the accident, a newspaper cover page from The Times, and several maps of the zone. All of these documents, along with a handwritten list of nearby towns, are placed between a photo (split in two) of a dry sprawling root.

The book itself comes carefully wrapped in a tinfoil, like a protective layer to keep away  the radiation. It has a rough open spine and two cardboard plates (with a silkscreen printed cloth cover) to gather the pages together. The photographs are printed on a thick, uncoated paper and have a rather strong scent of ink, and all the images in the book are horizontal and take the whole full bleed spread, reinforcing its continuous edge-to-edge flow.

Shadows of Wormwood shares the haunting mystery of the place that lost its gravity as a result of failed human activities, and Bondar’s personal tribute leaves us feeling the world’s fragility, his passing glances of the echoing emptiness reminding us of our own vulnerability. It is a powerfully enigmatic series of images, put together in a cinematic flow, both troubling and mesmerizing at the same time.

Collector’s POV: Arthur Bondar does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above).

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