Entertainment & Arts

Artists Jane and Louise Wilson offer view of Chernobyl

Jane and Louise Wilson, Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum), 2010
Image caption Jane and Louise Wilson photographed an abandoned swimming pool near Chernobyl for their series Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)

After the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in the USSR in 1986, film-maker Vladimir Shevchenko was on the scene within days. His film is the basis for a new art installation by Turner Prize-nominated British twins Jane and Louise Wilson.

When Shevchenko came to edit his film, he thought there must have been some technical fault - part of the footage was blighted by white flashes and audio interference.

But he realised that the film was not faulty - it had been damaged by the extreme levels of radiation.

"Seeing that the film captured radiation was extraordinary because it looked like an ectoplasm or something," Louise Wilson says.

"It's the light coming through from the sprockets of the camera casing. We just found this intriguing - the film is an amazing documentary but not only does it document an event, it became an event."

Shevchenko's documentary is a startling account of the attempts by poorly equipped workers to secure the site. But it came at a cost. Shevchenko died a year later. His camera was so radioactive that it was buried as nuclear waste.

Image caption Jane and Louise Wilson donned CCTV-confusing camouflage for False Positives and False Negatives

The sisters have tracked down the site where the camera was buried, just outside Kiev, and the three surviving cameramen, who tell their stories in the sisters' own film titled The Toxic Camera.

It is being screened at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester alongside large-scale photographs the Wilsons took during a visit to the town of Pripyat, which was built to house Chernobyl workers and hastily evacuated after the catastrophe.

The photographs show the ghost town being reclaimed by nature - a jungle looming outside the windows of the empty swimming pool, the roof of a lecture hall falling in, the wooden floor of the sports hall falling apart.

"It felt like that classic thing of going into the Amazonian jungle and discovering this lost civilisation," Louise says. "It's so overgrown. Where there were boulevards, there were just forests. Nature is absolutely recolonising."

Image caption A classroom was captured by the Wilson sisters for their Atomgrad series

As contemporary artists, there is more to the sisters' interest than simple curiosity.

In every photo, they have placed a wooden yardstick to reflect the fact that these are not quite empty spaces, but they have been monitored, measured and documented extensively over the years despite, and because, of their histories.

The yardstick is a scientific intruder into these landscapes, and also a reference to the continued human presence in the form of researchers and day-trippers. The urge to visit disaster zones has spawned a growing "dark tourism" industry.

"The narrative of the camera, the toxic camera, also seemed to connect with that term dark tourism and the desire to be voyeuristic at the site of catastrophe," Louise says.

The Cold War and Soviet era have been themes throughout the 45-year-old twins' careers. In many cases, the architecture is all that is left to tell the story.

Image caption Yardsticks feature prominently in the Wilsons' work

In 1997, they ventured into the abandoned headquarters of the East German secret police for their film Stasi City.

"No-one would admit to being a former Stasi worker who worked in this prison so it was left there," Louise says. "It was this detritus, this remnant of this ideology, and there was nobody there to explain it."

The sisters were nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999 for a film shot at the deserted Greenham Common, where US nuclear missiles were stored during the Cold War.

The following year they filmed at Star City, a Russian cosmonaut training base used at the height of the space race, while a 2001 film documented the former Soviet rocket launch station in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

"It's our history, it's what we grew up with," Jane Wilson says. "We grew up under the understanding of it being a Soviet era and there was an idea of capitalism and socialism. It really did happen. It's not happening any more now but once upon a time, that's what your concept of the world was.

"And for most of your formative years right through to your teens and 20s, that's how you experienced politics."

The Toxic Camera was also partly filmed in Orford Ness in Suffolk, a base for testing elements of atomic bombs from the 1950s to the 70s. The buildings are now abandoned and the site is owned by the National Trust.

The pair recoil at the thought of a Cold War obsession, pointing out that they do examine other subjects too.

But they say that while the Cold War has ended, the nuclear threat has not entirely disappeared. It has moved to places like Iran, while societies still have to deal with their own nuclear problems such as the accident in Fukishima, Japan.

"It's not just the Cold War obsession that's been brought to bear in this," Louise says. "It's also the materiality of the film and a current situation to consider right now - what we do with nuclear waste in a culture that's becoming more reliant on nuclear power?"

Her sister adds: "There's a point where you think, hang on a minute, it's not really gone away. It's shifted slightly but it's still coming through from the same momentum and scientific experimentation and knowledge."

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