Monday, January 28, 2019

Out There 2019: Berlin's Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close]

A nuclear apocalypse seems to be on many artists' minds these days.

Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Last year gave us The Lorax at Children's Theatre Company. A few weeks ago The Children opened at the Jungle Theater. And now we have Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close], created by the Belgian artist collective BERLIN and the next installment of the Out There series at the Walker Art Center.

I'm not sure how to describe Zvizdal other than a multimedia documentary experience. The bulk of the performance is spent watching a film, which interacts seamlessly with three meticulously crafted models of the film's subject - a single crumbling farm still standing in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster 32 years ago. Dido and Baba are the final two inhabitants of Zvizdal, a small village in northern Ukraine that fell within the permanent radiation radius after the disaster. The majority of the village's population was evacuated and re-located elsewhere, but a few residents stubbornly refused to leave.

Dido and Baba are the final inhabitants of Zvizdal and make for a fascinating film subject. Much like the agnostic gaze of Planet Earth, in Zvizdal we are taken deep into observing Dido and Baba's truly analog lives without a filtered perspective. In addition to the nuclear fallout, the subject is made all the more difficult by the fact that Dido and Baba are in their early 90s when the video is shot. Because the village was evacuated they are left totally without access to services we take for granted - running water, electricity, television, paved roads, gas for cars or motorized vehicles, grocery stores, post offices - even the radio station no longer services Zvizdal's two remaining residents.

The film focuses on Baba and Dido's lives over several seasons. Below the screen, three intricately detailed models (one each) of the summer, winter, and transitional spring / fall seasons show their home, animals, and foliage of the neighborhood. A focused camera on a track silently moves between them, interspersing the recorded documentary footage with the live rotation of the models. It has the effect of an almost 3D-meets-claymation imagery, and although I think it was unnecessary in terms of adding to the meaning of the piece, it was certainly interesting to watch. I could see how you might make a more efficient version of stop-motion animation with this technology, and it did help the piece to feel more interactive than simply staring at a screen surrounded by strangers.

I took my husband to this show, and we both agreed it's one of our favorite Out There performances of any year. Something about the quiet nature of Baba and Dido's lives profoundly affected each of us; the pregnant pauses between the mundane elements of each of their lives gave space for thoughtful reflection on modern society and humanity's responsibility to each other. Interestingly he and I left with very different lessons from the film. He was profoundly impacted by the imagery of Chernobyl's nuclear fallout and rightly pointed out how little detail is taught about the disaster today. As much we are told that the Cold War is over (an increasingly debatable fact, one might think), we still live in a highly nuclear world. There are nuclear power plants located in Minnesota and warheads planted all over the Midwest; a disaster could easily fall here, where it is far more densely populated than Chernobyl was, and what would we do if that happened? Are there better, safer ways of producing energy? Why bother with nuclear at all anymore with our increasingly efficient technologies for solar and wind power? How do you gauge what technologies are safest for life yet still meet our endless appetite for more and more powerful energy sources?

I, on the other hand, was deeply moved by Zvizdal's subconscious conversation about aging in Western societies. Baba and Dido aren't just living what is essentially a peasant's life in the 1800s; they are doing it in the latest decades of their lives, without access to electricity, modern medicine, telephones to call for emergencies, or even nearby family to check on them regularly. Their decades-long companionship provides them with a profound relationship that is truly the cornerstone of their survival, but it is clear that they are very hungry and physically suffering. Their mental quality of life would be devastated if they had to leave the only homes they've ever known, the homes they've lived in for nearly a century; but what about their physical needs? Is it moral to leave them alone in Zvizdal knowing they will be injured or starved and unable to reach help? Or is it better to allow them to die on their own terms, no matter how hard it is to watch? The way the elderly are treated in Western societies is a serious, troubling question that I don't think we publicly think about enough. Zvizdal shines a spotlight on many of the challenging aspects of this conversation and any viewers are sure to have a lot to think about by the time they leave.

I found Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close] to be a thoughtful, lyrical, quietly profound piece of art. It surprised me with its simple eloquence and left me with so much to discuss and think about. It's a great example of how art done well can delight, innovate, teach and advocate for change all at the same time. If you get a chance to go I would highly recommend it; click here for more information about Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close] and the rest of the Out There series at the Walker Art Center, which continues through the end of January 2019.

For a roundup of past Out There performances I've covered, see the following: 

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