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Chernobyl Diaries Pt.1

Ugne Kleinauskaite  2019

Chernobyl Diaries by Michael Pettet is a series of abstracted digital paintings that take inspiration from the most catastrophic nuclear disaster in history, as well as from today’s environmental concerns. The series is grounded in the 1986 events at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant when a simulated blackout power failure led to an explosion and fire, exposing the core of the reactor.  The resulting emission of radioactive particles brought acute radiation sickness, death, and abnormalities to generations of flora and fauna – the consequences of which are seen today and will be for years to come.

As the name of the series suggests, the works on display present a personal commentary on the Chernobyl accident and its aftermath; the impact it has had on the area as well as a broader perspective on the pernicious influence humanity has had on the environment overall. Chernobyl Diaries is a complete story of the Chernobyl disaster – both real and still visible at the abandoned town of Pripyat, as well as born in the artist’s mind after his recent visit to the site. One can see works alluding to the explosion and its immediate consequences, and works that allude to the rejuvenation the area has recently started experiencing, despite its continuing animosity to humans. The artist also shows post-modern images of the nothingness that large-scale eradication and our self-indulgent lifestyles bring.

Seen through the lens of an on-going nuclear menace and distrust of the modern world, our own destructive possibilities are obvious in Chernobyl Diaries. Atomic annihilation is an old fatalism that has expressed itself in popular culture since the birth of modernism and especially so through the Cold War era. Pairing this subject with a religious Doomsday scenario and the specifics of the apocalyptic landscape of Chernobyl, Pettet has allowed for a contemporary take on the subject.   At the same time he pays homage to such artists as Malevich and Tarkovsky who too have explored or otherwise hinted at the void that such science is leading us to.

Pettet is calling out humanity’s toying with nature; his works are a critique of inconsequential modernity and hedonism.  We disregard our dependency on nature and divorce ourselves from our surroundings and instead immerse ourselves in technology and consumerism.  We focus on monetary cost, instead of valuing the world around us at our peril. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the difference in scale that the works display – some of which seem to go as deep as microscopic to emphasise the changes caused by radiation on a molecular level whilst in contrast, others are vast apocalyptic landscapes stretching beyond any specific time and place. The artist is encouraging the viewer to look attentively and critically, to explore within, and outside of themselves. This is also exactly where his works present their biggest strength – Pettet’s artistic expression often lies in sophisticated detail and elements that are difficult to notice and grasp all at once, enabling the pieces to constantly evolve and open paths to many interpretations that can change and evolve over time.

What makes this subject particularly challenging for both the artist and his viewers is the fact that the represented event is part of our living memory and collective consciousness, and we do not yet know its full impact. However, this also means that the viewers are naturally drawn to engage with the subject matter on a personal level and can find meaningful dialogue with the works on display. The topic is also bound to remain relevant over time due to the many unknowns that surround it as this is a story yet to find its ending. While Pettet talks about the possibility of imminent apocalypse, he also seeds the idea that something in our world is awfully wrong and needs to be changed. Pettet does not simply juxtapose humanity and technology with nature; he warns that there is one essential difference between the two:  One of them can, and will, endure without the other. 

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