– Autumn/Winter 2005

A Victim and a Viewer: Some Thoughts on Anticipated Ruins

Magali Arriola

Tags: Ilya Kabakov, Robert Smithson, Walead Beshty

The idea of visiting a place such as Prypiat, the ghost town that lies in the vicinity of the nuclear plant of Chernobyl, seems curiously compelling. Like so many urban complexes that grew following the industrialisation that shaped the 20th century, Prypiat was built to house the workers of the power plant.

But, unlike most other modern towns of this sort that have been abandoned as their economies changed, Prypiat exists as testament to an abrupt end. It not only suffered a sudden devastation after just 16 years of existence, but it has remained untouched since that day in 1986 when the nuclear reactor exploded and its settlers were evacuated. Travellers and the guards who watch over it say that people's reasons for visiting Prypiat range from a fascination aroused by deserted places and decaying industrial cities to the curiosity that the site of the catastrophe itself inspires, since, for many, it stands as a perfect preservation of the shell of daily life under the Soviet regime. Some say that the fear which occasionally drives tourists away is inspired by the emptiness and silence of a city where time seems to have stopped, rather than by the high levels of radiation that still emanate from its ground.

Why do so many people share the urge to verify the completion of a future brought to a premature end, the will to become a late eyewitness to history? From where comes this necessity to confirm that the 'actually existing' scenario matches the images

  1. Ilya Kabakov, On the 'Total' Installation, Ostfildern: Cantz, 1995, p.245

  2. Ilya Kabakov, School No.6 (1993),


  3. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, New York: Modern Library, 2001, p.19

  4. Antoine Picon, 'Anxious Landscapes', Grey Room, no.01, Fall 2000, pp.76-77

  5. Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l'espace, Paris: Anthropos, 1986

  6. Robert Smithson, 'What is a Museum? A dialogue between Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson', Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam (ed.), Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, p.44; and (second quotation) Robert Smithson, 'A tour of the monuments of Passaic, New Jersey', J. Flam (ed.), op. cit., p.77

  7. Ibid., p.45

  8. These quotations are taken from the following sources (in order): 'Robert Smithson citado por Ann Reynolds en Ann Reynolds', in Robert Smithson, Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, p.102; Robert Smithson, 'A tour of the monuments of Passaic, New Jersey', in J. Flam (ed.), op. cit., p.72; and Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque, slide show with voiceover, 1969

  9. For an analysis of the extension of 19th-century expeditionary culture and the colonialist gaze in Smithson's work in Yucatan, see Jennifer L. Roberts, Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, pp.87-113

  10. As reported by artist and curator Pablo León de la Barra after his trip to Hotel Palenque in April 2000.

  11. J.L. Roberts, op. cit., p.113

  12. Giorgio Agamben, Means without End, Notes on Politics, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p.41

  13. 'In this sense, our age is nothing but the implacable and methodical attempt to overcome the division dividing people, to eliminate radically the people that is excluded. This attempt brings together, according to different modalities and horizons, Right and Left, capitalist countries and socialist countries, which are united in the project - which is in the last analysis futile but which has been partially realised in all industrialised countries -of producing a single and undivided people.' Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, 1998, p.179

  14. The title and the work are an oblique reference to Jacob Riis's magic lantern shows that portrayed 19th-century New York's slums through a phantasmagorical realism, with the intention to generate social consciousness.

  15. Jean Baudrillard, 'The Anorexic Ruins', Looking Back at the End of the World, New York: Semiotext(e), 1989

  16. HCRH, New York Awake, 1998