Window on our past: a 19th-century poem from al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. Photo: British Library EAP, photoshopped by Matthew Ward
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"The memory of the world": British attempts to save endangered Middle Eastern artefacts

Rescuing and preserving Middle Eastern texts and artefacts in the "post-custodial" age.

How much history did Isis burn in Mosul’s central library earlier this year? It seems grimly appropriate that it is difficult to find evidence to verify the worst estimates of 1,500 manuscripts and 100,000 books destroyed.

We are perhaps more used to states marking their territory by taking custody of the archives of weaker powers, even when that, in effect, amounts to kidnap. The British Library has material from all over the world collected during the days of empire; by 1979, however, Philip Larkin, a librarian as well as a poet, was trying to stop the flow of British literary manuscripts to the US.

Taking custody isn’t always a protective measure. Israel holds 6,000 Palestinian books and manuscripts collected from western Jerusalem after its victory in the 1948 war, but destroyed 24,000 it considered irrelevant or hostile.

According to the book From Dust to Digital, edited by Maja Kominko and published in February to mark the tenth anniversary of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), we now live in a “post-custodial” age. The programme removes nothing from its original location, so communities retain the ability to tell their own histories. Instead, money from the charitable Arcadia Fund is used to give grants to help people digitise at-risk or inaccessible material; the scanned images then go to the nearest possible institution and on to the Endangered Archives website (eap.bl.uk). The 19th-century copy of an Islamic poem printed above is one of “four million individual windows into the human past” gathered over the past decade: a photoshopping together of two of the 87,658 individual photographs of manuscripts taken in the library of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

If the numbers are difficult to comprehend, so is the history they reflect. Because the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam overlay it at different angles, the land around the library is perhaps the most fought over in the world. In 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, a few metres away, triggered the five-year-long Second Intifada, which killed as many as 4,000 people.

Al-Aqsa’s collection of Islamic manuscripts is one of the most important in the world, according to Unesco. Its newspaper archives also show the Palestinian perspective on the rising numbers of Jewish settlers, the 1917 Balfour Declaration in support of a Jewish state, British control between 1917 and 1948 and what Palestinians call al-Naqba (“the catastrophe”): the 1948 conflict that passed most of the area into Israeli control. Now they can browse its library from anywhere with an internet connection. Although the mosque is administered by a Jordanian trust, Palestinians can gain access to it only with a permit – or, during one of the many outbreaks of violence, not at all.

So far, the EAP has given out £6m in 244 grants and has received images of a vast compendium of medieval Jewish life known as the Cairo Genizah, beautiful illuminated manuscripts by Ethiopian Christians, ethnographic photographs of Soviet Siberia and scrolls that survived the annihilation of the northern Chinese Tangut people in the 13th century. There has been nothing, as yet, from Iraq. For much of the world, the “British” in the project’s title contradicts the “post-custodial” ideal.

“If this is the memory of the world,” the EAP argues, “the world needs [to be able] to access it.” Accordingly, all of the material is freely available, and captioned in five languages. It’s easy to get carried away: the UN estimates that only 40 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet, and, whatever the precautions, we have no way of knowing how long these images will outlast their physical counterparts. Yet, for the foreseeable future, the EAP represents a new kind of archive – a utopian monument to curiosity.

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.