Things to watch out for at September's G20 highlight

What can we expect?

On 1 January 2013, the presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) developed and developing countries passed from Mexico to Russia. After a series of uninspiring and largely overlooked G20 finance ministers’ meeting, the highlight of the year will be the gathering of the leaders in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. But what can we expect of this eighth summit of G20 leaders?

The G20’s decision to meet in St Petersburg this year is part of a longer process by which Russia has become a central member of the various alphanumeric configurations that have come to characterize global governance. Rewind to the end of the Cold War and it was the Group of 7 (G7) that provided the mechanism by which moral support and financial assistance was extended to the former Soviet Union. Since then, Russia went through a series of different statuses within the G7 from invited observer via full member, thereby creating a Group of 8 (G8) in 1998, to host of the 2006 St Petersburg Summit (famed for the "Yo Blair!" incident when President George W. Bush was caught on microphone hailing Prime Minister Tony Blair). Despite numerous calls along the way for Russia’s membership of the G8 to be rescinded for its poor record on human rights, it was a natural and original member of the first G20 leaders’ summit and its presidency this year can be seen as a culmination of a process by which it has become an integral and recognized member of international society.

At the same time, Russia’s hosting of the G20 will also play out domestically. Leaders of all political shades have attempted to enhance their reputation and standing at home, often with elections in mind, by exploiting the tailwind that hosting a successful summit provides (pace Gordon Brown "saving the world" at the 2009 G20 London Summit). Considering that Russia will host both the Winter Olympics and G8 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014, Vladimir Putin will be blessed in the near future with numerous opportunities to showboat both internationally and domestically.

Then there is the actual agenda. The exact focus of the summit’s agenda has been developed over the year and will be a mixture of legacy issues from previous summits and new issues that the Russians hope to add. No doubt the leaders will continue their efforts to stimulate economic growth, as well as combat tax evasion. However, this is an agenda that differs only slightly from that of the G8 leaders when they met by Loch Erne, Northern Ireland earlier this year. Since the first summit of the G20 leaders in November 2008, there have been repeated claims of the G8’s irrelevance and predictions of its ultimate demise. However, it appears as if reports of the G8’s death have been greatly exaggerated, and in fact the G8 may in fact be functioning as a caucus of the "developed" nations within the larger forum of the G20.

Looking beyond St Petersburg, Australia will host the G20 in 2014 and Turkey in 2015. Thereafter, the presidency will rotate on a regional basis with the Asian grouping (China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea) set to host in 2016. South Korea welcomed the G20 to Seoul in 2010 so is unlikely to host again so soon. Both China (seeking to increase its voice in international affairs) and Japan (scheduled to chair the G8 in 2016) have declared their interest in hosting the summit. Indonesia, as a rising middle power, might be the compromise figure everyone can agree to. Whatever the outcome, the process of confirming a host will require a degree of cooperation. Although seemingly minor, this development could provide some optimism in terms of regional cooperation within a group of Asian countries that have historically and recently shown little interest in cooperating unless strategically required to do so.

Imagining Asian regional cooperation in the future inevitably requires a shift in thinking beyond a single-country perspective, which is exactly the approach that the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield of which I am proud to currently be Head has sought to develop since its establishment as a Centre of Japanese Studies fifty years ago this year. Next month our Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, will open the Kyoto Science and Technology Forum, as part of a delegation from the university forging links with science and industry in a country uniquely poised to tackle the big issues facing the world – energy, health and sustainability. Engaging with countries like Japan has never been more important.

The East Asia region of 1963 and that of today are barely recognizable as a result of Japan and China’s rise. However, some important issues remain unresolved whether they be the divided Korean Peninsula or the continued American military presence. These changes and continuities inevitably cut across a single country’s concerns and make the region not only one of the most dynamic in the world today but also one necessary to understand for all our futures, not just the G20’s.

Leaders will gather in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. Photograph: Getty Images

Hugo Dobson is Professor of Japan’s International Relations and Head of the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. He has attended a number of G8 and G20 summits since 2008 and has written widely on the subject of global summitry and Asia’s role.

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.