Meta-theatre, voyeurism and the vogue for Lecoq

Nicky Woolf's second Edinburgh diary.

 

August 9. Day two.

The day dawns with rude punctuality. I am not, by inclination, an early riser, but by seven the sun is shining through the open window on my face with tropical brutality: the city is glorying in a heatwave. I rise mostly in order to stave off sunburn, and head for the Pleasance.

The first show I see is a real gem. Greenlight Theatre's Seeing Double is really two plays, Double: Vision and Double: Figures, running simultaneously with a video-link between the two, and I begin my day with the former. The shows together are a meta-theatrical farce about the collapse of an ambitious production of Macbeth, and it is riotously funny and tightly performed, so I book for the next day's production of Figures, to complete my set.

Next door to it, at the Pleasance courtyard, is a low black construction which houses the Peep stage, set up so that the audience sits in booths surrounding the stage in the middle, separated from their fellow viewers by curtains and from the performers by one-way glass; the sound comes over headphones. There are three short (20 minute) shows that play here, all about sex and sexuality, and I see the middle show, 69, by the Royal Court's Leo Butler. It is immaculately directed, production values are clearly very high and the voyeuristic effect works uncomfortably well.

My two shows for the evening are both by companies that have been formed out of the Jacques Lecoq drama school. Lecoq (childish snigger) is famous for physical theatre, focussing on dynamic movement and choreography, and is also a famously brutal learning environment: ninety students are accepted for the first year of the course, but sixty of them have been culled by the end of the first year. Lecoq is very much in vogue at Edinburgh this year; there are lots of shows by Lecoq graduates this year. I chose two of them for my first evening.

Edinburgh, built on a series of closely-packed and steep hills and hillocks, is a multi-layered city. From Cowgate, a valley street, you can look up at Nicholson, one of the city's great thoroughfares, crossing about fifty feet above you on an ancient stone arch, the buildings whose doors open onto it five stories above descend chaotically to the lower level, one city on top of another.

It is the Underbelly that takes the best advantage of this labyrinthine civic architecture. Its Cowgate headquarters is a bewildering warren of tunnels and dank chambers buried in the bowels of the city, and my first show, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, is in one of its deepest and dankest. This vaulted dungeon is an apt setting for a deeply, deeply surreal performance about the end of the space race, science fiction, and memory loss. The audacity of the conception is breathtaking, and the effect is a show whose overall effect is a little bit mind-altering; at times too weird, but also at times strangely beautiful. It leaves me feeling a little winded, so I gulp a restorative libation at the Library Bar at the Gilded Balloon, and then head to the second show of the night.

This is Centralia at Zoo Aviary, a charming character-comedy about the last three inhabitants of a town in Pennsylvania that is beset by a slow-burning seam of coal that runs beneath it, turning into a superheated nightmare of smoke and yawning infernal chasms. It is a wonderful play, the characters are lovingly designed and there are some fantastic physical set-pieces, just in case we had forgotten what Lecoq training is all about; but the most amazing thing is that the story of the town of Centralia is entirely and dramatically true.

Day One: The Big Four explained.

Voyeurs wanted: Peep's show, 69. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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.