Borrow, build, abandon

A haunting new photography exhibition captures an Olympic legacy abandoned.

Jamie McGregor Smith has a thing for empty spaces.  In the past, the British photographer has taken his camera to derelict environs as diverse as Detroit’s auto factories, Laybourne Grange’s abandoned lunatic asylum and Stoke-on-Trent’s forsaken pottery industry. He documents the decaying, the crumbling, the once useful  - now forgotten.

Recently, it is the un-peopled post-Olympic structures of the 2004 Athens Games that have attracted his attention. In a new project titled Borrow, Build, Abandon – now on display in London – he turns his gaze on the city’s failed exercise in legacy planning; a site that now sits almost entirely disused, accruing disrepair - a home for rogue vegetation, graffiti, even drying laundry. As journalist Helena Smith wrote after a visit last May, “Athens's Olympic park, once billed as one of the most complete European athletics complexes, is no testimony to past glories. Instead, it is indicative of misplaced extravagance, desolation and despair.”

McGregor Smith’s documentary series explores this legacy of destitution: “Eight years after the games came to a close,” he writes. “Only three of the 22 Olympic stadiums, built at a cost of $15 Billion, are currently in public use, the remaining requiring an annual £100 million in upkeep costs.”

Lessons on Olympic legacy, highlighted by the Barcelona and Sydney games, were shadowed in Greece’s case by pressures of completion and a delayed three-year construction timeline. Caused by political intervention and government elections, this rush for completion allowed little thought for post game usage and trebled its construction budget.

In  of our own moment of post-Olympic splendour, it’s no surprise that a photographer of Smith’s disposition was drawn to Athens. The product of political floundering, budget cuts and a lack of foresight, the buildings are a government’s failing embodied, and an example of what McGregor Smith calls industrial entropy – “the forces that effect the transition and the decay of matter and energy in a broader sense, evolving economic trends and industrial stability – a change that is natural and unavoidable.”

He further elaborates:

In the years of sovereign debt crisis, these white elephants of peer pressured national pride, much like the factory shells in defunct industrial cities, are testament to humans continued failure to comprehend inevitable entropic social change. We need to consider the possibility that all human construction in the future could have the technology of functional adaptation.

The work hopes to achieve an appreciation of aesthetic architectural qualities, in cohesion with their contextual relationship to the societies they were constructed for and by. In the cases of abandonment the effect of their power, achievement and status on human landscape, equally exaggerates their failure, in the context of their functional disestablishment.

With Boris Johnson at the helm of the London Legacy Development Corporation, permanent tenants secured for seven of the eight Olympic venues and a promise “to promote and deliver physical, social, economic and environmental regeneration in the Olympic Park and surrounding area”, legacy planning is undoubtedly an issue that London 2012 has enthusiastically addressed.

And yet these portraits – stark, unyielding, silent - are a curious reminder of an evolution that is often beyond our control. We can build it, but can we master it? We’ll wait and see.

Borrow, Build, Abandon: Athenian Adventures in Concrete Steel is Jamie McGregor Smith's first solo show; now on at the Print House Gallery, 18 Ashwin Street, London E8 until 3 October.

 

(All photographs courtesy of Jamie McGregor Smith)

An olympic stadium in Athens sits empty. (PHOTO: Jamie McGregor Smith)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war