miso tracks family history and nuclear fallout through art
In her new show Sarcophagus, the artists continues to explore her personal ties to the biggest nuclear disasters in modern history.
Stanislava Pinchuk's life has been bookended by nuclear disasters. Born in the Ukraine in the years following Chernobyl, her family moved to Australia when she was a child. As an adult, creating lauded art under the name Miso, she was drawn to Japan and began to split her time between the three countries. She was living there during the Fukushima disaster.
Moving between these spaces, observing the invisible effects of devastations that changed the world, she began to process the events in her work. Last year she created Fallout, a series inspired by the fishing nets she saw drying on the ground in Fukushima. lending her ultra detailed style to the country's topography she mapped the dead earth of the evacuation zone.
Now she's followed it up with Sarcophagus, a group of data maps tracking the radioactive topography of the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone. While the sibling projects both ask how you make art about something invisible, poisonous, impacting bodies, minds and communities Sarcophagus carries an additional narrative. Her time spent on research in the Ukraine and creating the works at home in Melbourne became a study of her own family history, and how it was knitted together with this horrific event.
Ahead of the opening of Sarcophagus at Sydney's China Heights gallery this month, we spoke to her about our generation's opaque relationship with nuclear culture.
This new work is about the seclusion zone in the Ukraine, and your previous series was looking at Fukushima — what keeps drawing you to these places?
I've lived really big parts of my life in countries that have had two big nuclear disasters: being born in Ukraine right after Chernobyl and then being in Japan at the time of Fukushima made me realise how much those events have impacted my life — that paranoia and those logistics. I felt very drawn to mapping that land, and how land is affected by something that's so invisible.
You've lived in Japan, but your family is from the Ukraine. How did that personal connection impact the way you revisited the Chernobyl incident in comparison to your previous work in Fallout?
I was born in Ukraine right after Chernobyl, it's interesting being in that first generation that doesn't know anything before the accident. Going there was really strange because it was almost like I knew the lay of the land, I knew where everything was and what everything looked like.
Talking to my cousin after I got back he did you go here, did you go to this hotel, did you go to the old theme park, did you go to these apartments? I was like, you didn't tell me you went to Chernobyl. And he was like, I didn't. Then I realised how much that psychogeography is engrained in you your whole life. My cousin, who hadn't been there, could describe the nuclear reactor where I was.
When you were in Chernobyl was there a feeling of exploring your family history?
Absolutely, the whole story is about two sides of my family. One side are beekeepers, so all of the works will be a combination of beekeeping practices. I've been researching a lot of the beekeepers in the zone, they were the only people who knew something had happened in Chernobyl. Bees can feel electromagnetic waves and they all retreated into their hives and didn't come out for three days. Those were the three days where people should have been evacuated and were not. No one was told what was going on; only the beekeepers had a suspicion.
You mentioned before being part of that first generation who grew up with this disaster as part of your own history. When I was writing these questions I was thinking that for most people our age, Fukushima was our first experience of nuclear paranoia and fear outside of the movies. Are you aware of your personal thinking around nuclear issues is different to other people you grew up with?
That was the big thing being in Japan when Fukushima happened, I was almost surprised how prepared I was. I kind of knew the basics of how it all works and I was surprised at how many people didn't. That's what got me thinking about the two events, and seeing them in tandem in my life. But I've also been really surprised at how little young people know about nuclear power, even post Fukushima.
You visited the exclusion zones for both these series, were you worried about your health?
I mean it's not the nicest feeling in the world but I think I'm lucky to have teams on the ground. I'd done the research and knew the logistics and protocol of what to do and what not to do. You start to understand geiger counters, and even certain types of architectural structures and organic spaces that you shouldn't go into because the radiation is higher or can't be cleared.
You're really careful about what your hands touch, what your clothes touch, about disposing of your protective gear and knowing where your cameras go and your notebooks go and your geiger counters go. And you're careful about food, drinking iodine tablets and things like that.
How did you even get access to those areas?
I guess if you know punks it's not hard. I have to be careful about how I answer this question (to not incriminate anyone), there's always a way. Surprisingly Chernobyl is getting easier to access.
When you are in those spaces, in Japan and the Ukraine, did they feel similar?
There's a kind of feeling, a really silent malice, because there's nothing perceptibly wrong. That's the hardest thing to get your head around. Nothing seems wrong, nothing smells or tastes or looks wrong. It takes a long time for your brain to adjust.
Is your work personal or political?
I wouldn't say it's necessarily political, because what interests me is working in sensitive areas. I think about conflict and I'm interested in what an artist can contribute to that dialogue that a politician, activist or a journalist can't. For me it's about explaining the feeling or the question without necessarily being political. Sometimes that can be really hard to separate those zones. What I'm trying to channel is communicating something personal or emotive, rather than giving an answer.
Do you see different things when you're not searching for a solution?
Yeah, all the work ends up being quite personal. I have this policy of eyes open, mouth shut; because you don't know what you're going to be struck by, you don't know what you're going to be moved by. It's good to not expect anything. Now more and more working in difficult zones you realise that journalists and people on the ground already had a narrative they're coming to shoot, or an end product — they already know it will be an eight-hundred-word essay or a three-minute clip. For me it's important to not know what it will turn into.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography James Lowe