Obama's crappy week

In just a couple of days, Obama's government machine had managed to inflame both their political opponents and the press to apoplexy, writes Nicky Woolf.

I arrive back in America after a brief sojourn in Blighty to find Obama suddenly floundering. After the bullishness of his State of the Union address just a few months ago, the dreaded second-term blues have struck with brutal suddenness. 

It wasn't enough that the gun control legislation so cherished by his administration appears to have foundered on the rocks of an obstructive congress. Nor that, a couple of weeks ago, the same congress in its infinite recalcitrance allowed the country to fling itself off the sequestration cliff. Nor even that Republican insistence that the State Department's handling of the Benghazi attacks was mismanaged continues to hang around like a terrible smell on a breezeless day.

First to emerge this week was the bigger scandal: that the Internal Revenue Service has been intentionally targeting right-wing groups, including Tea Party groups for extra and unfair scrutiny, singling them out by name. It is unclear as yet whose initiative this is, but it has rightly caused a storm of outrage from all over the political spectrum. 

Punch-drunk and struggling to regain control of the news agenda, Obama demanded – and got – the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, Stephen Miller on Wednesday, but this appears not to have worked; congressional Republicans have the scent of blood now. If they can prove the White House was encouraging the IRS to target right-leaning political organisations – extremely unlikely though this is – it could be Obama's Watergate. Much more likely is that such a link won't be found, but every Republican committee-chair in both houses will be queuing up to take a swing; to grandstand and to drag Obama through the mud. 

Enter Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, whose hearings this week have shaped him as a sort of nemesis-figure for the administration, and whose new-found fame will only grow as the story develops with him in the limelight.

Just the IRS scandal would have been enough to rock the administration. But the week held more. On Monday it emerged that the Department of Justice had secretly obtained several months' worth of records from private phone conversations between editors and reporters at the Associated Press as part of an investigation of a leak – an unprecedented liberty to take with the freedom of the press.

In just a couple of days, Obama's government machine had managed to inflame both their political opponents and the press to apoplexy. 

Everyone on the government side, in fact, spent the week furiously buck-passing. At first, Attorney General Eric Holder, up to bat against the inescapable Issa, defended the phone record seizure; then, in exchanges with Issa at the latter's committee hearings that became extremely heated indeed – at one point Holder dramatically snapped back at Issa, calling his conduct “unacceptable and shameful” - but ultimately shoved the responsibility for ordering the subpoena on his deputy, James Cole.

 Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has spent an unenviable week trying desperately to keep his boss away from both scandals – which has ultimately meant dumping blame on those in the DoJ and the IRS, attacking the Republicans as acting for partisan gains. 

He hasn't been particularly successful. This is the kind of week that can hobble a Presidency. With Issa, revelling in the spotlight, set to grill former IRS commissioner Doug Shulman next week, various committees of both houses of congress are now piling in to add their own investigations, looking for their own slice of the publicity pie. It looks certain that things are going to get worse for the Obama administration before they get better.

 

Obama speaks in the Rose Garden as a marine shelters him from the rain. Photograph: Getty Images

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.