Tag Archives: ruins

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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After Modernism

Let’s take a break from Cold War ruins and check out these abandoned factories from the post-socialist era.

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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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The Final Cut

Two years ago, the National Gallery of Canada, the Globe and Mail, and the Archive of Modern Conflict staged an exhibition called Cutline to interrogate the question of changing media technology, photojournalism, and archive in the (pre)digital age. Since then the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, has moved to a new location within Toronto as planned. Its old facility, along with the public installation of the exhibition, has been demolished in order to make room for residential and commercial developments. Like other media outlets, the Globe and Mail has also long ceased to use film for image gathering. The final cutting down of its massive former Press Hall built in and for the analog era was therefore a profoundly symbolic moment.

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The Higher Order of Things

Architectural domes in Bulgaria and Cuba! Who says that spirituality does not exist in the Communist world?

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Bubble World

Are we living in a bubble world? Bangalore, India seems to have the answer.

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Landscapes of Resentment

Recently, in re-reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, I came across this disturbing passage that succinctly sums up the current toxic political environment in a growing number of liberal democracies: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

In addition to thinking about how we got into this mess, can we also visualize the landscape of resentment that has led to the current rise of populism? For example, can the haunting ruins of these two former automobile plants, respectively in Milan, Italy and Detroit, USA, reveal a story of globalization, outsourcing, automation, and neoliberalism? And how do we write a visual history of the origins of the postindustrial populist uprising?

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A Site of Struggles

Zhangjiakou (张家口) has always been a strategic military pass that separates the Mongolian Gobi Desert and the North China Plain. Not surprisingly, dynastic regimes in the past always paid special attention to the sections of the Great Wall passing through the region, rebuilding and upgrading them frequently. Then, during the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Cold War, new fortresses and bunkers were added alongside with the ancient war infrastructures.

However, many of these battles were also fought on ideological grounds. There is nothing more illustrative than the Xiwanzi Catholic Church that has been sitting on the fault line of various colliding forces. Towards the end of the 19th century, for example, the church was sieged by the Boxer rebels and defended by the Allied forces. In the final days of the Civi War, the town also changed hand several times in a tug-of-war between the Communists and the Nationalists. Since the community had firmly aligned themselves with the Nationalists, a massacre took place after the Communist victory. The church was ultimately demolished in the Cultural Revolution when a Mao mural was erected nearby.

The struggle has continued since but not without some ironies. Recently, in anticipation of the hosting of the skiing competitions for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the church was rebuilt based on its original form as part of the town’s beautification plan. Meanwhile, the Mao mural, which had long been neglected just like the surrounding communities, was demolished. That really is too bad because another great leader would probably want to have his handsome LED image installed on that wall.

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