The triumph of Oxford University's joke president is another symptom of disengagement

Our fetishisation of the man who promised to turn the Bodleian Library into a night club demonstrates the dearth of remotely interesting people elsewhere.

"Does this stuff just bore you?", asks an agitated Oxford don after an hour of forced discussion about the political economy of World War Two. "Is this why we now have George 'unremarkable 2:1' Osborne as Chancellor?", he goes on, disheartened by the lack of interest his undergraduates have shown in Beveridge, Keynes and Hayek. Young people, it would appear to him, even Oxford history students, have no interest in political ideas.

Yet the arguments in our defence are compelling. We explain that we have lived our whole lives in a neo-liberal, post-Thatcherite ideological vacuum. Thehyperbolic clashes of the twentieth century’s intellectual heavyweights are a world away from the monotonous, and frequently broken, promises of the career politicians that have dominated the discourse of our lifetime.

The Russell Brand episode and the enormous response it received soon becomes our tutorial’s topic of conversation. We explain how 'Brandism' is emblematic of how disengaged our generation has become. The comedian is certainly no Keynes. However, what he said was something we have never yet heard – that it doesn’t have to be like this. That there should be an alternative. Although Brand may not know what that alternative is, even the suggestion that a new idea could take root excites a generation that has only ever known a gap where the Big Ideas should be. The very fact I just felt the need to give Brand an 'ism' only goes to show our yearning for an ideology. We are bored stiff by the status quo.

Yet as the Oxford University Student Union elections demonstrated last week, this paralysing lethargy is not confined to third year history students. With a turnout of only 21%, LJ Trup, the joke candidate promising to build a monorail through Oxford and turn the Bodleian Library into a night club, was elected.

Trup’s victory was in part down to a shrewd election campaign. He eschewed the usual door knocking and leafleting. He preferred to upload a video of himself belting out that speech from Braveheart, accompanied by bagpipes and hoards of screaming students. Unconventional, yes, but it certainly caught the imagination.

He owes his new 20k salary to his main opponent, however. The outstanding favourite for most of the race, Jane Cahill was cast as the stereotypical student politician. Her painfully unoriginal 'Jane4Change' slogan, her awkward, insistent use of hand gestures while talking and her frightfully organised campaigning clique of loyal followerswere alternatively mocked andloathed by students. Trup’s rallying cry '#LJTrup4ousu4chang'’ poked fun at his well-polished rival. In the final week of the campaign, Cahill even felt the need to write an article defending the notion of a 'student politician'.  We were clearly not convinced. Cahill, rightly or wrongly, came to symbolise everything we now resent in politics.

Like Brand, Trup isn’t a genius. Unlike every other political figure, however, he isn’t mind-numbingly boring. But our fetishisation of his charisma only demonstrates the dearth of remotely interesting people elsewhere.

This election result is just another symptom of disengagement with the political class, even if this time it’s only the student political class we are rebelling against. One thousand six hundred and eight five students were willing to vote for a man who wrote his manifesto in crayon. We are that desperate for an alternative. 

The Encaenia procession enters the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University on June 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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.