Justice and the death of Gaddafi

The colonel's killers took the law into their own hands. Does this matter?

Gaddafi was lynched. At least, that's what appears to have happened. One moment he was being hauled, very much alive, from the tunnel in which he had taken refuge. On our next sight of him, shot, beaten and dragged through the streets, he very much wasn't. Whether he died from a bullet to the head or the stomach, on the bonnet of a jeep or in an ambulance, his fate was sealed the moment he was apprehended. No legal process, however truncated, preceded his peremptory dispatch; and yet yesterday a man who claimed to have fired the shot that terminated the Colonel's earthly existence was openly bragging about it to the TV cameras. Clearly he did not fear standing trial for murder.

To cover themselves, the interim Libyan government has put out a story about Gaddafi dying during a shoot-out. And that is probably the end that the toppled dictator himself would have chosen, or at least what he would have claimed to want. A trial, with all the grandstanding possibilities and opportunities to embarrass western leaders it would have afforded him, would have been even more Gaddafi's style. His actual death was neither heroic nor theatrical: cornered, he was, it seems, begging for his life. But the mob was in no mood for mercy.

I'm not sentimental about these events. Gaddafi was a dreadful man and the world is a better place without him. And it is perhaps fitting that his death differed little, in its essentials, from that meted out to countless others on both sides of Libya's civil war, others without the blood of thousands on their hands, others whose mangled corpses were never shown on TV or, if they have been, were merely anonymous visual statistics. Gaddafi's death was not, like Osama Bin Laden's, the result of a planned and targeted operation. It was, it appears, entirely spontaneous: popular justice at its roughest and readiest. Such things happen in the heat of battle, or when the normal mechanisms of law and order are not functioning.

Violent death can even provide a catharsis. Certainly it looked that way last night, although the manner of Gaddifi's death evoked neither pity nor terror among ordinary Libyans, but rather waves of relief and joy. For those who suffered under Gaddafi's rule, this is understandable. And joy, like any strong emotion, can be contagious. Yet there's something unseemly about scenes of jubilation over the bloody corpse of anyone, even a dictator. They do not reveal the best of humanity. They evoke rather the atavistic bloodlust of the Roman arena or, in our own history, the excitement of the crowds who gathered at Tyburn to watch traitors being hanged, drawn and quartered.

It's therefore a bit depressing to see the lack of nuance in the international response to yesterday's events either in the media, which has crowed over Gaddafi's corpse, or in official reactions, which have welcomed the dictator's removal without troubling too much about legal niceties. There has been much use of euphemisms. Is it that western governments do not expect of Middle Eastern countries the same standards that presumably they would apply to their own? Even the Vatican seemed pleased, saying that his demise "marks the end of a much too long and tragic phase of a brutal struggle to bring down a harsh and oppressive regime." While hoping that the Libyan people "might be spared further violence due to a spirit of revenge", there was little hint of regret for the nature of the "dramatic event", or the fact that it deprives both Libya and the world of the spectacle of formal justice taking its course.

But however emotionally satisfying, mob justice is no substitute for the real thing. Gaddafi's lynching means that many secrets have died with him and will never be told. The manner of his death also risks making a martyr of him, or, worse, nurturing a desire among his remaining supporters to avenge him. Even if there are no such consequences, the new Libya is somehow diminished by the casual eradication of the embodiment of the old.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.