Tag Archives: Cold War

The Theater of War

My solo exhibtion The Theater of War will open on December 1 as part of the 2018 Lianzhou Foto Festival. The exhibition draws on my ongoing investigation of the relation between aesthetics and military violence, nuclear fallout, and Cold War ruins.

In his treatise On War published nearly two centuries ago, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz deploys the idea of the “Theater of War” to analyze warfare. By the twentieth century, this concept has emerged as a common Western military expression. However, the idea of the theater of war is also an accurate description of war preparation, drills, and even civil defense. From the Cold War arms race to the Gulf Wars, the two military superpowers–the United States and the Soviet Union–often used their restricted military zones to simulate the enemy territories for training and weapon testing. Meanwhile, dramatic scenes of devastation by the enemy were also used in civil defense. In other words, even without a real war, the hostile landscape associated with the enemy had already arrived in one’s own territory. Moreover, these fictional scenes tended to normalize the anxiety, fear, and violence brought about by war, and hence greatly increased the possibility of disasters. Thus, even if the war of mutual annihilation did not occur, many military bases and cities built for war preparation had already become victims. Today, the sense of ruination and desolation is evident in these still active simulated battlefields, abandoned weapons testing sites and related military bases, as well as cities and farmlands destroyed in the process. As if the worst nightmare of war has indeed come true, these devastated scenes resemble that of the post-apocalyptic world.

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Life Goes On

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is hardly a dead zone or time capsule. For these self-settlers who have moved back to their villages inside the zone illegally, life has to go on. Still, aside from their contaminated farmlands, memories of a better time are what they really cherished.

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Foxy and Radioactive

On that fateful morning of April 26, 1986, the supposedly state-of-the art Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant exploded during an experiment, releasing 400 times as much radiation material into the environment as that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. The accident ultimately led to the downfall the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but not necessarily for the better. Today, the fallout of Chernobyl, nuclear or otherwise, continues to be felt in the region and beyond. Meanwhile, more than three decades after the accident, this cute little fox is posing in front of my camera with Reactor 4 and then the unfinished Reactor 5 as the backdrop. He seems to be indicting us for our cancerous existence, and that our history is all about destruction, debris, and incompleteness.

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History’s Sinkhole

This sinkhole has swallowed its own history. All we know is that the drilling rig and equipment used by Soviet engineers collapsed as this giant sinkhole emerged in around 1971 or perhaps even as early as the 1950s. It is also unclear whether the engineers set the natural gas crater on fire intentionally, hoping that would exhaust all the natural gas in a few weeks, or that the fire started mysteriously in later years. In any case, this crater has been on fire for almost half of a century. Nicknamed the Door to Hell, the burning crater in Darvaza, Turkmenistan actually looks extraterrestrial at night. Depending on the season, hundreds of birds may sing and dance around the crater before dawn, waiting for their turn to “dive.” These little “angels of history” will not be able to redeem the irreversible destruction that we have inflicted on the planet, but it is surely a heavenly scene in an otherwise hellish landscape.


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Eisenhüttenstadt’s Second Coming

Once the pride of the East German state, the steel plant in Eisenhüttenstadt has been downsized and privatized.

The former East Germany city Eisenhüttenstadt (Ironworks City)–also known as Stalinstadt (Stalin City) prior to the de-Stalinization movement in the early 1960s–was designed to be one of the socialist model cities in the Eastern Bloc. The end of East Germany, however, has unexpectedly turned the city into another kind of model, one that could be used to study the impact of deindustrialization in post-socialist societies. Like many of the rust belt cities in Eastern Europe, Eisenhüttenstadt has become a breeding groud for reactionary and populist politics, fueling anti-immigrant and neo-facist sentiments. When I visited the city a few years ago, I was also fascinated by the fact that there were now three city centers: a desolate historic downtown, a rusty city center of the socialist model city, and a new American-style shopping mall that actually called City Center. The shopping mall, needless to say, was just as depressing as any lifeless shopping malls in the American suburb. As for the deindustrializing socialist city, it was interesting only because the ruinous vibes evoked a sense of nostalgia for its past grandeur and utopian vision. Thanks to the unification, residents of Eisenhüttenstadt have been bestowed with a field of ruins and a Waltmart-like shopping center, which is a ruin of another kind. In Eisenhüttenstadt’s “second coming,” the center still does not hold. Whither Eisenhüttenstadt?

An abandoned hotel at the center of the former socialist model city.

Even the traffic signals are generic around the lifeless City Center shopping mall. The fun and iconic Ampelmännchen is nowhere in sight.

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The Last Picture Show

History was made (and buried) here. Without this secret uranium mine in Hunan Province, China would not be able to develope its first atomic and hydrogen bombs in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of workers sacrificed their lives due to industrial accidents and radioactive illness over the decades. Yet, their stories were little known to the outside world. When I finally visited the site after months of delay and procrastination, construction workers were busy sealing off the movie theater of this former indusrial town. “My memory is being buried here today,” said a middle-aged woman holding some old tickets that she had just retrived from the ground. Her parents were military personnel sent to work at this Cold War facility in the late 1950s. Hearing all the stories, I too felt incredibly sad but also incredibly lucky. I would not be able to photograph this place at all had I arrived even just a few hours later. At the same time, had I visit the site just a day earlier, I probably would not be able to meet so many former personnel and collect their stories.  Once upon a time, the site was about racing to make history. Now, for me at least, it was about racing to save history.

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Old Walls, New Surveillance, and Global Anxieties

The ruins of this advanced warning radar station make us think of another Cold War ruins seven thousand kilometers away… >>> READ MORE >>>



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Berlin to Beijing and Back Again


Near the northeastern edge of Berlin, in what was once part of East Germany (aka the German Democratic Republic or GDR), is a place called Mörderberg (Killer Mountain), which contains a cluster of derelict buildings. Abandoned since the 1990s, they were once the barracks of the GDR’s Volkspolizei-Bereitschaft (People’s Police on Standby), which was under the command of that now-extinct country’s fearful Interior Ministry. During the final weeks of the GDR when massive demonstrations broke out in Berlin and elsewhere in 1989, these buildings were at the center of action, serving as both the barracks of paramilitary riot policemen and as an overflow prison for anti-government protesters. These days, sitting quietly in the middle of a vast and tranquil green field, the buildings and their grounds are surrounded by a tall metal fence, lined with rusty signs in German warning that the site is off limits. Yet, not unlike the Berlin Wall in the period just before unification, the fence, however menacing-looking from a distance, is full of holes and gaps. For those who, like me, are interested in reading history against the grain, the combination of the warning signs and gaps are an invitation to explore.

And when I finally visited this place with a German friend earlier this year, I was mostly drawn to the stories and memories hidden inside these otherwise charmless prefabricated structures.

Even though I discovered that the site’s name Mörderberg actually predates and has nothing to do with its role in violent late Cold War actions, it is not without its eerie aspects. On the exterior wall of the first building I encountered, I saw a drawing depicting policemen in riot gear standing in front of a notorious police transport bus—a vehicle locals often mention when describing police round-ups of protesters in October and November 1989. On the exterior wall of another building overlooking a sprawling parking lot, there was a more haunting piece of graffiti. It showed the face of a screaming woman, presumably one who had been roughly handled by the police. When we entered the buildings and walked along their long empty hallways, I imagined I could hear the echo of the cries of the woman painted on the wall.

Back in fall 1989, of course, the loudest screams were not those of prisoners held at Mörderberg, but ones paramilitary police heard crowds shouting near the Berlin Wall. The size and intensity of these protests took the authorities by surprise. And despite all their efforts to suppress them, on November 9, 1989, the wall fell.

Many factors contributed to the fall of the Wall. Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms, for instance, enabled a new political climate to emerge across the Eastern Bloc. But a contributing force, which explains the relevance of a post on East Berlin on a “China Blog” was the circulation of images of the events that had taken place in another part of Eurasia in the spring of 1989, especially shots of tanks rolling into Beijing and of the June 4th Massacre.

Another tie between Berlin’s and Beijing’s 1989s was that on October 1 of that year, when the Chinese Communist Party was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Egon Krenz, who would become the leader of the GDR in its final days, was visiting China’s capital. He was there to pay tribute to Deng Xiaoping. “In the struggles of our time,” Krenz said, with protests and Deng’s forceful suppression of them surely in mind, “the GDR and China stand side by side.” When university students flooded the streets of East Berlin just a few days later at the time East Germany was marking its own 40th anniversary, many wondered if the GDR authorities would turn to what had become known as a “Chinese solution,” meaning a massacre. In the end, they didn’t.

Several German friends and interlocutors have told me that during 1989 confrontations in the GDR, both protesters and soldiers shouted “No violence! No Tiananmen!” The frontline actors on both sides did not want a replay of the violence they had seen on television.

After wandering around Mörderberg for an hour, as I pondered these and other connections between East German and Chinese events of a quarter of century or so ago, we returned to the sprawling parking lot where we began. What caught my eye this time was a big pile of debris. And this seemed apt, as the entire site can be seen as made up of historical leftovers; discarded and partly forgotten objects waiting to be deciphered.


The history of this forgotten site offers a reminder of the limitation of writing national history. The two 1989 40th anniversaries separated by just days, as well as the abortive and successful uprisings that took place just months apart, suggest that the history of national independence, socialist experiment, and Cold War mobilization are shared experiences that needs to be understood globally. I would argue that the same is true, despite the different roads taken in Berlin and Beijing in 1989, of the more recent history of neo-liberalism in the now unified Germany and the still nominally Communist China. To explore that, however, would require exploring other urban ruins and a full-blown essay rather than just a blog post.


Originally published in the China Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books (June 3, 2015)

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