Critics’ Picks

View of “Ringing Trace,” 2021. Photo by Pavel Otdelnov.

View of “Ringing Trace,” 2021. Photo by Pavel Otdelnov.


Pavel Otdelnov

Building of the Former Dormitory of Laboratory B
Sokol village, Kirova St., 9
September 11–October 31, 2021

Every two years, the Ural Industrial Biennial draws a throng of creative professionals to the borders of Siberia, reenergizing the art scene in the neighboring regions of the host city Yekaterinburg. One of the small towns benefitting this year is Snezhinsk, which incorporates the partially abandoned village Sokol, the former site of a nuclear-research laboratory. Access to the area is still restricted, especially for foreigners.

As part of the artist-in-residence program of the Sixth Ural Industrial Biennial, Pavel Otdelnov chose Sokol as the setting for his exhibition “Ringing Trace.” The show tells the story of the laboratory and its staff, conjuring the paranoiac atmosphere of the classified facility against the backdrop of the deadly 1957 catastrophe at the Mayak plant, the worst nuclear disaster on record at the time. “Ringing Trace” builds on Otdelnov’s previous narrative exhibitions, which were dedicated to the lost histories of decaying post-Soviet localities. The artist crafted these stories through his signature “half-empty” canvases, audiovisual atmospheric effects, and a documentary section, usually consisting of abstracts from archival texts and paintings made from found photos. The current show is more balanced and concise. The artist counters muted oil-and-canvas works like Human Radiobiological Tissue Repository, Trinity, and The Relocated (all works 2021) with vivid passages taken from diaries and memoirs of the region and, memorably, a popular 1950s folk song, “Ah, Samara, Start Pumping the Water!”

Unfolding over twenty-one chapters, with each vignette tucked into its own dorm room, “Ringing Trace” is an unsettling survey of the lasting effects of high-level radiation and severe secrecy measures on the local villagers, who were effectively held hostage by the Soviet Union’s ambition to be a superpower.