Think of Boston, not Berlin

Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries.

One hundred years ago this month, an inspiring revolt kicked off in Dublin. After tram workers in the city centre demanded a pay rise, the industrialist William Martin Murphy locked out trade union members from their jobs. The dispute that ensued caught the attention of socialists in many countries. Vladimir Lenin praised the “seething Irish energy” of the union leader Jim Larkin.
 
On a recent trip home (I’m a Dubliner living in Belgium), I heard several radio interviews with representatives of the Irish Labour Party. Though Larkin was a founder of that party, its present-day grandees dance to Murphy’s tune. One of them, Ruairi Quinn, is now the country’s education minister; he has been boasting about how the school curriculum has been revamped at the behest of major companies.
 
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) wants science and maths to be given greater priority at secondary level and more courses with an “explicit focus on enterprise” in higher education. Ibec’s objective here is to achieve a “well-skilled and flexible labour force”. Part of the flexibility being championed is that companies don’t have to recognise unions. The industrialists of 2013 insist they should still be able to lock out recalcitrant workers.
 
Labour is the junior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Fine Gael. Known colloquially as the “Blueshirts” because of the party’s historical ties to fascists who aided Francisco Franco during the Spanish civil war, Fine Gael fought the February 2011 election on a pledge to “burn the bondholders”. Lenders to Anglo Irish Bank, a feckless institution that almost capsized the economy, would not be repaid, according to the party’s manifesto.
 
The promised incineration has not materialised. Ireland’s real masters – officials at the European Commission – told Fine Gael and Labour before the election that satisfying such creditors as Deutsche Asset Management and BNP Paribas was non-negotiable.
 
Hospitals have been forced to pay Anglo’s gambling debts. Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries. The Health Service Executive, which runs Ireland’s medical services, has had its budget cut by €3bn since 2008. The Irish Times has reported that the reductions are making it difficult to comply with standards for childcare and cancer treatment.
 
A bizarre twist to this sorry saga is that Ireland’s government is committed to introducing a universal health insurance scheme. How can this be achieved at a time of austerity? The details remain fuzzy but the overriding goal is clear: the private insurance industry will be put in charge of the scheme.
 
Mary Harney, the health minister between 2004 and 2011, once claimed that Ireland was “closer to Boston than Berlin”. The current “reforms” reflect that spirit. It is instructive that Alain Enthoven, an American free-market economist, also advocates that Ireland adopt universal health insurance with private firms in the driving seat. In his view, medical care is “a kind of luxury good”. Dublin is toying with ideas from a man who compares life-saving operations to Fabergé eggs.
 
I love going home to Ireland. However, when I think about the regressive measures being implemented in my country, it is impossible not to leave with a sense of despair.
 
David Cronin is the author of “Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War” (Pluto Press, £17.99) 
People make their way across a bridge over the river Liffey in central Dublin. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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.