Geraint Rhys is an independent musician and film-maker from Swansea. Here he discusses his new short documentary In the Footsteps of Ghosts: A conversation with Pavel Otdelnov which recently won Best Documentary at the Moscow Shorts International Short Film Festival.
When discussing the relationship between Welsh miners and the natural environment, Raymond Williams, the great Welsh literal critic and Marxist, stated in his book The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists (1989) “it is no use simply saying to them that all around them is an ecological disaster. They already know. They live in it. They have lived in it for generations. They carry it in their lungs.”
Here he emphasises the complex relationship between heavy industry, workers and the land. On the one hand it provides for a source of wealth, community and livelihood, on the other, its very exploitation destroys the natural environment and often the health of its workers.
This relationship is universal. Wherever land is exploited for the purpose of dirty industry, there are always negative natural consequences.
It is almost 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, and with it, the decline of much of its thriving industries. Yet, the creative fuel this provides for contemporary Russian artists is still very evident.
I visited Moscow in August 2019 to collaborate with some of them and to understand how they are influenced by this history and memory. One of those I was fortunate to spend some time with is Pavel Otdelnov. He is one of the leading figures in contemporary Russian art and his work grapples with life growing up in the post-industrial city of Dzershinsk (around 250 miles east of Moscow), where the skeletal forms of abandoned chemical factories layer the landscape.
Through his paintings and exhibitions Pavel intricately explores ideas of abandonment, ruin, loss, nostalgia, family, environmental damage and a deep sense of place.
His works have reverberated throughout Russia and beyond, being included in the collections of the Russian State Museum, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the Academy of Arts and private collections in Russia, United States, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and many others. I went to visit him to further understand the stories behind his art.
When I arrived Pavel’s unassuming studio, tucked away on the third floor of an apartment block in a busy part of central Moscow, upon entering I was hit by the scale of his work. Large canvases propped up against even larger ones which filled the room. Reflective of the weight of the history of subjects he deals with.
As he showed me around his studio, we discussed how changes in landscape over time can have a profound effect on the way people interact with their surroundings. I have always been interested in how the personal geographies of artists are inflected either consciously or sub-consciously in their work. Indeed, much of my own music and films deal with these issues. I therefore wanted to discover how important a sense of place was to Pavel’s art and whether this helps him negotiate his relationship with his countries past.
In the Footsteps of Ghosts is a film about this conversation. It takes us into his studio as he describes the inspiration behind many of his works and not only is it an exploration into the mind of the artist, but also a reflection on the relationship between art and place.
We discuss the legacy of his grandparents and parents, who all worked in the factories. We discuss his own childhood memories, recalling the smells of one of the most polluted lakes in the world, nicknamed the White Sea. We discuss the life of the labourers and the changing aesthetics of Soviet industry over time. We discuss the challenges he faced gaining access to these abandoned places and the dichotomous relationship where post-industrial places are caught between a communal sense of loss, and a consciousness of the violent ecological destruction this period had and is still having on contemporary society. Pavel talks with an eloquence that mirrors his paintings.
The parallels with Cymru are obvious. Driving through our landscapes, in particular the South Wales valleys, our industrial past is still scarred into the soil.
This is a relationship I have thought about in my own work. In 2017, I released a welsh language track ‘Ta Ta Tata’ about the precarity of the Port Talbot steel works. The music video consists of numerous shots of the currently functional steel works, as I sing in various locations. Although still standing, as recently as January 2020 news emerged that the Indian based company were once again thinking of leaving the site. If it were to close, this would have a significant impact not only on Port Talbot and Swansea, but the whole of South Wales. A reminder of the fragility of local places to global capital.
Seeing Pavel’s work, I feared that I was also looking into a crystal ball, a glimpse of things to come, and wondered whether in a few years’ time I will be exploring the abandoned steel works of Port Talbot. Taking pictures of the decaying shells of their former selves.
Overall though, what Pavel’s work shows is that life persists. Watching the drone footage he recorded of the miles of abandoned factories, the enormity of exploitation can really be appreciated. He describes many of these structures today as cathedral-like monuments that although unused, continue to ‘have their own invisible life’ as nature re-claims them, slowly erasing the memory of this once grand past. A reminder that eventually, no matter the damage we cause, nature’s resilience knows no bounds.
The film finishes with Pavel reflecting on what he sees the role of the artist to be, stressing that they make ‘visible what is invisible’ showing what ‘all the others pass by’. He is certainly doing this by exploring Russia’s environmental history and is expertly exposing humanities vulnerabilities. He has also inspired me to become more familiar with my own family’s history, before like the decaying factories, they disappear back into the soil.
(Header photo of Pavel Otdelnov by Elena Mihailichenko)