c  h  e  r  n  o  b  y  l     d  i  a  r  i  e  s     p  t.  3

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                                                Part Three of Michael Pettet’s Chernobyl Dairies


                                                       'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
                                                     Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'


The Third Part of the Chernobyl Diaries has superficial echoes of the sonnet of the English romantic poet Percy Shelley about the vast desert wastelands where the statue of the former “king of kings”, Ozymandias, can be found.  Despite the absolute ruler’s arrogant boasts of earthly achievements, there are only “two vast and truckless legs of stone” and “a shattered visage”.


                                                     Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
                                                    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
                                                     The lone and level sands stretch far away."


Michael Pettet’s reflection, unlike Shelley’s however, is not just limited to the futility of one individual’s achievements against the span of infinite time and the enduring nature of nature, but a visual meditation on the final destiny of the human race much in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick in his ground breaking epic “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Pettet, like Kubrick, transports us through time and space (and stages of evolution) to a dark and scorched world where we are left spinning: dizzy and disorientated searching for rationale answers to explain what has happened to Earth and what is the final destination of man?


Time and scale are uncertain in this future world and for an instant one is not completely certain whether this is indeed planet Earth. There is no sense of “déjà vu” from memories of Part One of the Diaries where, despite the devastation of radiation, there was a rejuvenation of flora and fauna and a sense of the resilience of the nature. This is not an environment site-specific to Chernobyl but one whose geographical scale is vaster.  


These are corroded and scratched granite landscapes (almost the Earth’s exposed tectonic plates) seeped through with pools and rivers of radiation and lashed by acid rain: surfaces devoid of recognisable vegetation but in whose historic layers rest fossilized trees. Their ironic presence, below rather than above ground, is part of what disorientates the eye. Some of pictures with their pox marked surfaces recall 1917 aerial photographs of Northern France and Belgium devastated by the artillery bombardment of Total War.  We search for familiar contours and a sense of order and instead locate fragmentary reminders of man’s former presence. Within the same picture, what could be the remains of robotic intelligence set in juxtaposition to primitive cave style paintings. There are references to classical languages, to the spires of churches, to mathematical numbers and to primitive monoliths and star gazing platforms. Some symbols are barely recognisable: the classical gateway that has become a dead end leading on into rock. We wander and explore through a land every bit as confusing as the “Zone” in Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” searching for visual clues as to what could have happened, looking for a coherent narration, an idea of cause and effect, in this post-human world.


Pettet teases us like the Stalker posing Socratic questions about the meaning of human existence rather than giving explicit directions and explanations. Within his repeated rectangles and squares (that are “Space Odyssey Obelisk” like) he highlights and draws our attention to what could be tantalising visual clues.


Frustrated and wanting to solve this visual puzzle we can also make reference to Pettet’s previous reflections on the nature and ambitions of the human race at his different stages of evolution. What does seem particularly relevant is Pettet’s observations on the parasitic nature of modern man: his consumerist exploitation and careless abuse of his natural environment but also his dangerous experimentation with science. Then of course, there is his insatiable desire to explore and discover the unknown – the last frontier of space and the possibility of encountering and touching the face of one’s maker, God.


Could the answer to the “riddle of the paintings” be found in the anxieties and conflicts of our own dysfunctional times? The obsession of our own individual relevance in this consumerist  “Age of Celebrity and the Selfie” that has led us to blindly ignore the socially explosive inequalities of Neo-liberalism and the growth of Populists ready to exploit the power of the Internet to propagate their lies and poison, to control minds and to turn man against man? The collapse of the last vestiges of international cooperation and the rise of aggressive nationalism in the 21st Century: the on-set of endless wars between nations to seize the last of earth’s resources until that final act of insane greed, ignoring the 20th Century doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction... the multiple pressing of nuclear buttons... atomic annihilation!


This course of events could explain these scenes of devastation and past human presence.


But is another possibility that parasitic man has simply abandoned a planet that has served his purpose and found a place in outer space? The presence of bright bars of extra-terrestrial light in many of the pictures hints that perhaps man has made new powerful alliances or else has evolved into an ethereal super being? We recall Kubrick’s “2001; A Space Odyssey” where Dr David Bowman in the neoclassical bedroom witnesses older versions of himself and with an inquisitive touch of the Monolith is transformed to become a “star-child”.


Like all great art, Michael Pettet’s Part Three of the Chernobyl Diaries is open to numerous interpretations provoking deep reflection about the human condition, the purpose of existence and man’s final destination.


Dominic Simmons


May 2020