In order to leave its mark, art need not explode with the ferocity of the fission that catalyses both nuclear reactor and bomb. Its effects can also irradiate like the slow decay of isotopes and accumulate with the silence of fallout. Yelena Popova‘s assemblage of entangled works is not a blast, but its traces linger long after its observation.
Popova grew up in Ozyorsk, once a closed city so secret that it did not appear on the maps of the time, and itself the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. While the citizens of what was then designated City 40 were assured that the Mayak reactor which necessitated such secrecy was an important tool for peace, alongside the ploughshare electricity of its ostensible purpose, it also produced the plutonium 239 necessary for the nuclear sword.
The unmarked location concealed still darker secrets. In 1957, a failure in the plant’s cooling system led to an explosion and the leak of what was at that time the largest release of radioactive material in history (since surpassed only by Fukushima and Chernobyl), contaminating thousands of square kilometres and forcing the evacuation of at least 22 towns and villages.
It’s a resonant accident that the works make their debut in Manchester, a locale with claims to be both the world’s first nuclear city, the place where Rutherford pioneered the creation of an artificial nuclear reaction and the first to declare itself nuclear-free.
At its heart are the stones that give the pieces their shared name. Raised on plinths of varying heights, the gongshi, gathered by Popova from the grounds surrounding the first generation of Magnox reactors, almost seem to pulsate with the latent warp power of dilithium crystals. The impression they suggest, that of the future as envisaged from yesterday, is emphasised by the plinths themselves being set into a lattice work flooring, at once evocative of a graphite core and a set from the monochrome past of Doctor Who.
If the Tardis-like tableau forms a natural centrepiece, almost an altar, then the twin tapestries that hang at the gallery’s furthest reach have the potency of relics or icons. Entitled Keepsafe (I and II) , they are designed to signify mausolea for the still-ticking Geiger counts of decommissioned reactors, temples to the Cold War that cannot be safely dismantled; warning signs from the present to a future tens of human life spans and an atomic half-life away.
More allusive, perhaps, are the post-petrochemical paintings; non-geometric washes in pigments derived from the earth on which the reactors are built that seem to speak in aboriginal tongues from times either before or after science. These square frames are complemented in turn by circular works more planetary, perhaps, than molecular that appear to suggest words unspoiled by human ingenuity.
Fittingly, however, it is the fusion of its constituent elements that gives the piece its power. Taken as a whole, their traces mark out both the smallness of the present moment and the eons that will bear its radioactive imprint long after its paintings have been sun-bleached, its statues sand-blasted. Its legacy will be temples encased in concrete; their worshippers outlived by the gods they thought to control.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.
Main image: Yelena Popova, Keepsafe (I and II), 2019. Reece Straw. Courtesy of Division of Labour and l’étrangère’