Landscapes of Power
With her exhibition Landscapes of Power (the title references a book by Sylvia Crowe, Landscape of Power, published in 1958) Yelena Popova in a way returns to her beginnings. Working across a range of media including painting, installation and tapestry, Popova’s research project addresses an ongoing fascination of the nuclear history and materiality. Her first show in our gallery Unnamed presented works which were researched and developed during her MA at Royal College of Art in London; amongst these works were two artist-documentary videos which dealt with the history of a nuclear disaster (1957) that had taken place in Ozyorsk, USSR, Popova’s home town, a secret closed city, which was the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear-weapons program.
While her two other previous exhibitions at the gallery were dedicated to the topic of time in relation to capitalism, the production and distribution of goods and services, Popova now again picks up the nuclear subject with Landscapes of Power. The title, that has a double-meaning, not only alludes to the systems of power (companies, governments) that stand behind the production of energy in general but also to the production of energy itself. Over the last year Popova has been visiting decommissioned nuclear sites around the UK as part of a self-appointed enquiry. She visited seven Magnox-reactors of the first generation to discover that they currently cannot be dismantled and will have to remain on the British coastline until at least the end of the century, thus becoming themselves a pile of contaminated waste, and also a monument to the problematic decisions towards nuclear energy and its everlasting impact on our nature and societies (the half life of the contaminated graphite is about 5,000 years). And she walked the surrounding land-scapes and gathered soil and stones. With this exhibition Popova attempts to make tangible the close links between the nuclear industry, and its invisible impact on our landscapes through the passage of time. While in her earlier shows Popova explored the passage of time and its economic value, painting’s temporality (her Evaporating Paintings series) and the infinite circular movements of the financial world, she is now pointing towards the deep-time (geological time) in our age of the anthropocene.
The central installation of our show, The Scholar Stones Display, consists of pedestals with scholar stones. The pedestals are slotted into the panel floor, representing the geometric design of a graphite core of a nuclear reactor. Together with the three surrounding Jaquard-woven tapestries, the whole ensemble serves as a metaphorical monument to the nuclear reactors Popova visited – and how they need to be understood as entities that exist in close correlation to their space, geology, landscape, the time in which they last, and their industrial history.
The Scholar Stones Display in fact presents what one can call the contemporary version of a “scholar stone”: Originally, a scholar stone was a naturally occurring or shaped rock that adheres to a set of esthetic principles defined in Tang dynasty China (618-907 AD), which would be displayed and admired as objects of contemplation. Popova’s collection represents different geological areas of the UK, as well as the different geological time of the rocks. The scholar stones (which as an art form represent an early human engagement with abstraction) have been placed on their woo-den pedestals as objects of contemplation as well as documents (or souvenirs?) from Popova’s journeys.
The two tapestries titled Keepsafe (I and II) are meant as artistic propositions for mausoleums for the decommissioned reactors – mausoleums we already know from Chernobyl, the infamous Russian site of a collapsed nuclear plant, and which we will know from Fukushima, once their construction has been finalized. They show, in a very abstract way, the graphite core of the reactor, and the propositional mausoleum built above it, surrounded by the seascape where most of the reactors in the UK are located. While they might stimulate us to ponder the history of nuclear energy as well as of nuclear weapons, the third tapestry, Ripple-Marked Radiance (after Hertha Ayrton), is an homage to the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), who studied electric current at the very beginning of electricity production.
With color material based on the soils collected at the sites of the reactors (as well as with wood-ash) Popova painted a group of canvases, employing her elegant, curvy modernist forms that she used also in earlier installations of paintings. Now, with the pigments gained from the soils, these forms appear in earthly colors (shifting from greyish to reddish tones, depending on the landscape the soils were taken from). The canvases thus connect to the landscapes, their geological composition, and their history as well as to the modern, utopian, formalist, constructivist history of the ancestors of Popova’s own painting, namely Lyubov Popova, Natalia Gontscharova or Alexandra Exter, to name just a few. While the utopian idea of an unrestricted amount of available energy certainly was part of the modernist history these artists belonged to, the organic, painted forms also allude to the radioactivity that still is active at the sites of the derelict reactors.
To summarize: with her project and through the mass of the collected rocks, and the sensual (tactile) quality of paintings Popova makes nuclear industry tangible.