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Nursery School Classroom, Pripyat

David McMillan
Nursery School Classroom, Pripyat, 1997
Chromogenic print from the series The Chernobyl Evacuation Zone
36.7 x 47.5 cm

In 1986, radioactive emissions from the damaged nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, in north-central Ukraine resulted in the forced exile of over 135,000 people. Millions of acres of rich agricultural land were severely, contaminated and left to lie fallow. As a consequence of the accident, the villages and cities around the plant were turned into a kind of time capsule, filled with remnants of the former Soviet regime as well as the personal possessions left behind by residents when they fled.

David McMillan, a Winnipeg artist, has made five trips to Chernobyl since 1994 to photograph "the zone" - the area most severely affected by the fallout of radiation - documenting its gradual deterioration and recording the traces of its former inhabitants. In a deserted classroom, the misshapen body of an anatomy model, propped up against a radiator, conveys an eerie sense of mortality. On the floor of a nursery school room, a rag doll lies abandoned amidst the disarray of little chairs, both the chairs and the doll dwarfed by an imposing portrait of Lenin that bas fallen from its place on the wall. A partially refinished boat rests in a light-filled room, surrounded by great chunks of plaster fallen from the ceiling. In a hospital ward three empty, dilapidated cribs are backed against a wall of peeling paint. Nature slowly infiltrates buildings and yards: ferns, grass, and a small tree grow out of the floor of a room, tree branches become entangled in heating ducts and roof beams, playgrounds are choked with vegetation, and gardens succumb to a dense mat of weed and underbrush.

McMillan has always been fascinated with urban landscapes and built environments, partly for their formal possibilities. His photographs are often tightly structured by the relationships between the shapes, lines, and colours of various architectural elements; the human world appears ordered, controlled, and self-contained. In the Chernobyl Evacuation Zone series, this idealized vision of our fabricated world is held in tension with the effects of catastrophe. The rigid geometry of human structures slowly crumbles through exposure to the elements, and order steadily and irrevocably breaks down. The strict organization of the photograph is tested by the very nature of its subject matter.

McMillan's series also raises interesting issues related to the portrayal of nature. In traditional landscape art, nature is often represented as a healing, restorative force, a place of spiritual refuge, offering a sense of permanence in a human world otherwise marked by transience, loss, and destruction. McMillan's work reminds us that in our time the idea that nature exists in a pure state is a myth; there is no area remaining in the world that has not been touched by human activity. Even if humankind were to disappear, traces of human presence would remain, and in the case of a disaster such as nuclear contamination the effects are severe and permanent.