John Kerry needs to understand day-to-day life in the West Bank is there is to be any hope of peace

The state of roads in the West Bank tells you everything you need to know about the possibility of Middle East peace, writes Nabila Ramdani.

 The state of the roads in the West Bank gives a good idea of where the resumed Palestinian-Israeli talks are heading – and it certainly isn’t in the direction of peace. You can see a number of them from the hilltop town of al-Khader, just outside Bethlehem – from modern highways to rockstrewn dirt tracks. The best are designed for vehicles with registration plates bearing the Israeli flag and the country’s name written in Hebrew. Poor and dispossessed Arabs, whose transport is easily identified by green-numbered plates, have to stick to the back roads.
 
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, who is leading resumed diplomatic efforts in Jerusalem, would certainly be advised to check out the view from the heights of al-Khader. This week I saw constant Israeli army convoys heading off to strengthen Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. The military will be even busier over the next few months after Tel Aviv approved the building of 3,100 new settler homes, many in East Jerusalem – the very place that Palestinian peacemakers want to be their capital city. On 12 August Kerry said the new Israeli colonies would not halt talks, explaining: “We have known there was going to be a continuation of some building.”
 
In fact, “some building” is by far the biggest stumbling block. Construction on land occupied by the Israelis following the 1967 Six Day War has been condemned by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice; no foreign government in the world officially supports it. 
 
The unbridled expansion of Jewish settlements in the very areas where Palestinians are supposed to have a state will add to the almost 700,000 illegal settlers in about 120 communities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
 
Beyond the segregated roads – the fast, slick ones for Israelis and the slow, potholed ones for Palestinians – there is barbed wire, machine-gun posts and, most sinister of all, the West Bank Barrier. This is a 430-milelong wall keeping Palestinians out of their lands, which have diminished to less than 20 per cent of historic Palestine. Crossings, many of which I negotiated on foot, are like cattle grids, with only a very few people herded through following stringent security checks.
 
Israel claims that the barrier exists solely to protect civilians from attack, but it is undeniably the concrete symbol of the annexation of Palestinian territory. Attempts to reinforce the wall over the past few months have led to Arab farmland being cut off from al-Khader, leaving the already desperate agricultural workers with no living at all. When they complain, everything from tear gas and batons to live ammunition is used against them.
 
All of this is day-to-day life in the occupied territories. Unless Kerry can appreciate that, the road to peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict will be going nowhere. 
This is our land: peeking at a new settlers' commune in East Jerusalem. Photograph: Lior MIzrahi/Getty Images/

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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.