The quiescence of the photographs in Nadav Kander’s series Dust stands in stark contrast to the subject they represent. On view at Flowers Gallery through May 7, the photographs document nuclear test sites used during the Cold War on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan. The towns in the images—Priozersk and Kurchatov—don’t appear on official maps. Falsely claimed by the Russian military to be uninhabited until Kander discovered them on Google Earth, they were sites of horrific experiments authorized by the Russian government: nuclear and other secret weapons tests, long-distance missile launches, and studies of the effects of radioactivity and pollution on the local human and animal populations.
Ten large-format color photographs, which document the vestiges of sites that were mostly razed to the ground in order to obliterate their military past, brilliantly deploy what Kander calls “the aesthetics of destruction.” As he observed in a text that accompanied the show, “It is the combination of beauty and destruction, beauty and melancholy, that really attracts me.” Most of the buildings seem to have been constructed in the middle of nowhere, amid desert sands, piles of scree, or fields of snow, as if they owed their survival to chance. In one of the most astonishing images, taken at a place called The Polygon, giant concrete slabs jut out from the earth like ancestral totems. There is something majestic and solemn about this impressive spectacle: a mute symbol of struggle against dismal aggression.
During his exploration of the region, Kander, the recipient of the 2009 Prix Pictet for his series Yangtze –The Long River and a renowned portraitist, was twice placed under arrest. He wore a white hazmat suit and carried a Geiger counter to measure the levels of radiation. This is one way to ward off the threat that harmed the province. Another way is inevitably through Kander’s pictures: in between compositions of ruins is an image of a brittle forest of crosses, marking, one can surmise, the graves of the victims of ignorance and barbarity.