David McMillan, Nuclear Power Plant, Chernobyl, 1998, printed 2013, ink jet print, 61 x 78.9 cm; image: 55.3 x 69.6 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the artist, Winnipeg, 2013 © David McMillan

David McMillan, Nuclear Power Plant, Chernobyl, 1998, printed 2013, ink jet print, 61 x 78.9 cm; image: 55.3 x 69.6 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the artist, Winnipeg, 2013 © David McMillan

From the Field: David McMillan’s Chernobyl Series

In 1986, nuclear emissions from the broken reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, resulted in the forced exile of over 135,000 people. Millions of acres of rich agricultural land were severely contaminated and left fallow. Like a time capsule, villages and cities are filled with articles of the former Soviet government as well as personal possessions that residents left behind as they hurried to escape the radiation. A recent HBO miniseries about the disaster has become the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDB) highest-ever rated TV show. And its popularity is reported to be fueling an unprecedented rise in tourism to the area, since opening to the public in 2011.

Winnipeg-based artist David McMillan first travelled to the Ukraine in October 1994 to photograph what is referred to as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—the area affected by nuclear radiation. Over 25 years, he visited the site 22 times to document its condition, the result of which is the breath-taking, hardcover photobook Growth and Decay: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, published this year by Steidl.

The photographs, seen here, acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2013, visualize, in horrific detail, what for many can only be unimaginable. At the same time, the images are familiar and frightening, alluring and appalling.

 

David McMillan, View of Forest from Dental Hospital, Pripyat, 2012, printed 2013, ink jet print, 92.6 x 111.9 cm; Sinking Boat Near Chernobyl, 1998, printed 2013, ink jet print, 61 x 78.9 cm, gift of the artist, Winnipeg, 2013; Rehabilitation Pool, Children's Hospital, Pripyat, 1998, printed 2013, ink jet print, 111.8 x 143.5 cm; Music Room, Kindergarten, Pripyat, 2009, printed 2013, ink jet print, 92.5 x 111.9 cm; Game and Gas Masks in School Hallway, 2003, printed 2013, ink jet print, 61 x 78.9 cm, gift of the artist, Winnipeg, 2013. All images National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © David McMillan.

 

In the 1980s, McMillan approached the cityscape for its formal possibilities. By tightly structuring his photographs to emphasize the relation between the shapes, lines and colours of different architectural elements, the artist captured a human world that appears ordered, controlled and self-contained.

In his Chernobyl series, the idealism of formal aesthetics is held in tension with what we know has happened to this place, and the greater consequences of such an event. Further, the dense organization of the photographs is tested by the very nature of the subject matter. The rigid geometry of the structures is slowly crumbling through exposure to various elements; the photographs show human order being steadily and irrevocably broken down bit by bit.

Although McMillan’s project highlights the fragility of the human world, it also reveals nature as a vigorous and enduring force. The artist has stated that even though the Chernobyl zone represents a horrendous moment in human history, the apocalyptic consequences of which will be felt for tens of thousands of years, the area is not dead or static, but alive with growth and change.

His repeated visits to the site to take photographs year after year of the same view or scene reveals a vibrant nature, one that has perhaps been altered but not eradicated. In this sense, his work provides some hope to viewers of continuance and, one imagines, eventual erasure of the consequences of human recklessness.

This text was adapted from an essay in the catalogue Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014, available at the National Gallery of Canada Boutique and shopNGC.ca.

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