What would it be like to really see a ghost? To peer beyond the veil into a realm which coexists with ours, but perpetually impossible to perceive? This is one of the central animating principles of Alice Miceli’s haunting Projeto Chernobyl, on view at the Americas Society until January 25th. Using radiographic film, Miceli has managed to visually record gamma radiation still present in the exclusion zone established surrounding the town of Pripyat in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. There has been a recent renewed interest in Chernobyl, particularly after the sensational response to HBO’s prestige drama retelling of the event from earlier this year. When taken against the backdrop of a collective sense of our impending doom from climate catastrophe, Miceli’s work insists on a greater consciousness of our accountability to our planet. But she does not appeal to the angels of our better nature; instead, this ideology is presented as a threat. The exhibition seems to ask, what happens when we do not check our worst instincts?
In a conversation with co-curator Gabriela Rangel (the exhibition was curated by Rangel and Assistant Curator Diana Flatto) published as part of the exhibition, Miceli explains that the radiographic film she used for this project is the same film often used for human chest x-rays. She further explains that this is because it is one of the most sensitive varieties, and therefore would be most likely to produce the most obvious results. While that makes sense practically, the morbid metaphor of her choice is impossible to ignore: the radiographs become a medical evaluation of our very planet. Placed within different parts of the exclusion zone for months at a time between 2006-10, these pieces of film were exposed directly to the deadly gamma radiation which still occupies the air in Chernobyl. While gamma radiation may be invisible to the naked eye, it is certainly not invisible to observation. The original film sheets are shown in lightboxes, installed in a near pitch dark gallery space with only the most basic context given at the outset. Some appear to be blank, with only small disruptions, while others are transformed. Curving mellifluous forms disrupt the surface of the film, like smoke or a blurry photograph of ripples over the surface of water. The viewer gradually realizes this is the radiation, captured as it wafts invisibly through space. The experience of walking through this exhibition is one of mounting dread, as the implications of the aesthetically simple radiographs dawn on the viewer. Miceli has employed her knowledge of photographic processes to devastatingly emotional effect. One can only imagine how chilling it must have been for Miceli to develop this film, and see the mark of this undetectable killer. The end result of this experience is one of creeping horror; not only of the radiation, but of our own human capacity to harm. It has been estimated that the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl was roughly 400 times that of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with radioactivity levels which have remained high for 33 years and will remain that way for hundreds, if not thousands of years to come. However our future as a species unfolds, this indelible mark will remain, likely long past when we have faded into the annals of Earth’s history. Our longest standing monument will be an invisible one, and it will commemorate our carelessness, and our hubris. How’s that for a memento mori?
Alice Miceli: Projeto Chernobyl, on view through January 20, 2020.