First Order of Decay by Amy Benson

Amos Coal Power Plantraymond  West Virginia 2004 Body

Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond City, West Virginia 2004. From the “American Power” series, c-print, 70 × 92 inches. All images courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Rumors circulated. Interns quit. Depending on who you ask, the gallery was not careful with the wording or it was immaculately precise. Either way, the press release seemed to imply that the upcoming exhibit would be radioactive, with materials hot from Chernobyl. Attendants, they said, would be wearing protective suits; visitors would be asked to sign waivers.

A good deal had been written previously about the artists, mostly by critics, sometimes by journalists on the arts beat, but now they were suddenly, massively famous. Newspapers, morning shows, cable news networks, and blogs frothed over the story, leading with Has the art world gone too far? or Would you risk cancer just to see art? or While the world reels from Japan’s nuclear disaster, one Manhattan art gallery is allegedly bringing radiation to you. For a day or two, the radioactive exhibit was the dominant topic in online discussion threads and polls: Environmental art or sensationalism? Should artists who harm the viewer be prosecuted? A Court TV anchor interviewed a professor of law who said he would be within his rights to attend the gallery show because it might be radioactive and then initiate a lawsuit because it might be radioactive. “We must be protected from our curiosity,” he said.

On opening night, it was impossible for most to enter the gallery, impossible even to form a line, the street was so mobbed. News crews jockeyed for position on the pavement; their hot lights and well-drawn telecasters made it seem as if everyone was, indeed, in the right place. A few police units were called in for crowd control. They put barricades on either end of the block and called to one another over their radios: “What’s going on here, again? Over.” “I don’t know. Some stunt. Over.” “One of the galleries is supposed to be radioactive. Over.” “It’s always something. Over.” The looks on people’s faces were sharp, conspiratorial, sometimes almost greedily amused, as if real things weren’t real and their attendance was proof.

The crowds hardly waned after opening night, and reporters returned, hoping in vain for an interview with reluctant gallerists or the artists who seemed altogether absent. Soon after the opening, though, when officials from Customs and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began to investigate, the gallerists and their lawyers conceded to interviews. The artists’s original intent, they said, was that the materials for the sculptures be salvaged from the forests and deserted towns within the “Zone of Alienation,” the ring directly around the Chernobyl power plant meltdown. After all, poachers, loggers, and scavengers regularly smuggled radioactive goods out of the Zone. People could be eating Chernobyl meat or sitting in Chernobyl chairs. But they, the gallerists, would never risk viewers that way. It was all perfectly safe—materials were from the “Chernobyl area” but outside of the restricted zone. They’d been tested and legally imported.

After that, the crowds died back enough that one could see the exhibit itself. The walls had been turned into lightboxes and covered in what looked like magnified nature photography—a fuchsia orchid big as a bush, a swallow’s oddly folded beak, an animal track in mud, a boar running, nearly in flight. Invisible speakers broadcast layers of birdsong, wolves howling, a sound that might be snuffling in the dirt. Oddly formed trees made of wood scrap, sun-bleached fiberglass, tubing, and rusted metal dotted the cavernous room. It was as if the branches had a hard time knowing which way was up. They started toward the ceiling and then shot to the floor, and vice versa. The corners of the room were bubbling with fungi that might have been real or fabricated—people peered closely, but couldn’t tell.

After the gallerist’s statement, it became easy to surmise that these were all images from Chernobyl, from inside the Zone. And because of the exhibit, studies of the Chernobyl area were suddenly given space in the press. They conflicted, as studies will, but some said that while human life has dwindled to a few hundred residents (far fewer than had attended the opening), some flora and fauna have flourished since the meltdown. A national news weekly ran a vivid spread with graphs, photos, and sidebars that showed how rats and mice have mutated greater cell stability, vegetables swell outrageously, some pine and birch grow as bushes instead of fully grown trees, species presumed extinct—bison, lynx, bear, wild horses—thrive in the world’s most disconcerting nature preserve. One report said that robots were sent recently into the exploded reactor core and returned with a profusion of mushrooms. The article ran with footage of button mushrooms growing in manure at a farm upstate. These displays were tantalizing, more arresting, in fact, than the show’s sculptures and photographs. They made the Zone of Alienation seem like both the next hot eco-destination, and like the old Route 66, gilded with nostalgia for the Cold War era, a place made iconic through abandonment. News outlets made viewers feel many things in quick succession, with grateful amnesia.

There were some easy-to-miss elements of the gallery show, however, that restored some of the uneasiness the news shorts had chased away. For example, everyone seemed to leave with dust or ash on her legs. It took a long time to track down the source, but it seemed that movement through the doorway to the exhibit triggered a subtle puff of particles—chalk? And then the lighting was terrible—fluorescent, overly bright and vibrating here and there from faulty ballasts. People looked waxy and unstable, as if they, themselves, were quivering. Particularly sensitive viewers and those who returned to see the exhibit again noticed a smell in the air, sickly sweet as it persisted. Burnt candy or a chemical sugar. Visitors who lingered also began to feel slightly damp, their hair curling or going limp, their skin clammy. If they looked, they would see numerous tiny nozzles in the ceiling emitting a whisper-fine spray. It was water, distilled water, the gallerists had been pressed to admit in interviews. But people reported feeling ill after leaving—nauseated and irritable. Something with an unknown half-life had crept up on them.

Is this what the artists wanted? The worry, the creep? The conversation turned, in smaller circles now, to whether the artists themselves were sensationalistic, orchestrating a baseless uproar. The timing seemed suspicious—the exhibit going up only months after the second largest nuclear accident in history. But by all accounts, they had been unreachable except by Ukrainian postbox for four or five years, some claiming they’d been living all of that time in the Zone of Alienation. Before this, they seem to have been itinerant, moving every few years, with no permanent studio or home. In the past they’d moved to Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to Croatia after the war; they’d lived on the Bikini atoll and dove the military ship graveyard despite the warnings, they’d lived on a houseboat in the Pacific, floating in the middle of islands of trash. They sent work from each blighted place.

Some writers called them disaster mongers, in love with the worst-case-scenario. Some said they were like cockroaches or carrion beetles. They came with the microbes, vermin, and reporters after disaster. Some said they’re canny, they’re sociopaths, they’re fueled by their press: exploitative, morbid, nihilist.

But little was known about them—they had never made statements before, had never given interviews, didn’t allow artists books to be made of their catalogue, didn’t give talks or authorize pictures of themselves. Perhaps this, too, was calculated: the “greater press through no press” strategy. Except that their self-imposed isolation was thorough and committed. True narcissists would have starved under such stringency.

Others said that they are the future in the present, that is, psychologically, biologically. We watch them to know what’s coming our way—how to see, how to make a home in all those places that don’t seem to want us, because of something we’ve done.

The last known place they’d been before the Zone of Alienation was New Orleans. Not long after Hurricane Katrina retreated, they bought three adjacent lots in the 9th ward for almost nothing and spent more than a year camped on one while they attempted to build the other two up to sea level. They carted mud and sand and piles of sea sediment to the lots in industrial food buckets and then with a wheelbarrow they found. They posted pictures of each load—hundreds of remarkably similar photographs.

When this did not move fast enough and the soil threatened to simply slide into neighboring lots, they erected scrap-wood scaffolding around the mounds and began tossing debris from the flood down onto them. A sign in front said: Flood-fill Wanted, and, daily, people backed up onto the property and tossed out couch cushions, collapsed chairs, boxes of swollen books, file cabinets with broken locks, car seats, and endless black plastic bags, mystery bags they did not open.

From blocks away one could smell the dankness. Even atheists say that the smell post-flood is the smell of evil. And the artists lived next to the smell for a year. But it seems like that was what they wanted—to test their senses, their stamina and sanity. To get down with what happens next. Right there in it, nostrils full.

The tower became a landmark, the highest point for many acres. Some said it was more blight, an eyesore; some considered it a monument; some said at least all that crap is gathered up in one place; some said now we’ll have something to hold onto when the waters breach again—they are going to breach again. One critic considered the year-long project as performance art, but then said such art was bankrupt. The energy they spent on this tower could have gone to building new homes or schools. People were hurting, the critics said, and a tower of ugliness sharpened the sting.

They disappeared one day, their tents disassembled in the night and wedged into the sculpture through gaps in the scaffolding. Had they finished? And what did finished mean? Public record shows they still own the deeds today, but they left nothing else behind—no sign, no press release, no other evidence of their presence besides the paths they’d worn in the ground.

Records also showed that the city occasionally issued fines for property dereliction and fines for non-payment of fines. But to have torn down their sea level tower would have taken more money than the city had or cared to spend on the 9th.

A few years ago, the tower turned into a pyre, and accounts made their way into local papers, post-Katrina blogs, and photo streams. At least one headline said, “Well-known artists’ work destroyed by fire.” It was kids, some said, teenagers looking for something big to feel in the moment and to talk about after. Maybe it was a community action, people tired of what they saw as a pile of trash. A rumor circulated in the art world that the artists themselves had returned to light it up. The fire department brought a truck down and watched the tower burn. A crowd gathered too, of course, flames still calling to something deep down. But it was safe this night, a peaceful buzzing. People brought folding chairs and bags of chips and watched the flames and the water like they were a favorite show. On account of the heat, jacked up by the burning tower, the fire truck turned one hose into a giant fountain. Neighbors dashed up to it, shrieking; kids rode dirt bikes and scooters through it, performing tricks for the crowd. On that night, it hadn’t mattered who was artist and who was spectator.

After the fire, there had been silence about the artists for years until what became known as the Chernobyl show. Now, a recent article in a Manhattan arts and leisure magazine, entitled “Ghost Hunting in the Art World,” about artists who remained eccentrically reclusive or elusive, claimed that all inquiries sent to their Ukrainian postbox were met with a stark white postcard bearing an invitation to visit them in the Zone of Alienation. New work would be discussed, statements given, and questions answered only there. If interested, contact them again with dates for the visit, and they will respond with GPS coordinates.

The biggest surprise is how cheerful they are. And easy in their skins. They had seen adventurers, natives, and poachers over the years, but until now no one had taken them up on their offer. They live in a cottage on what used to be farmland around the village Opachichi. Now it’s mostly a birch and pine forest, but they’ve re-cultivated a handful of acres and the area directly around the cottage is dotted with the ramshackle outbuildings of homesteaders: a lean-to woodshed, hen house, well, smokeshack for preserving fish and game, drying shed, outhouse, and solar shower. A small orchard near the cottage has withstood fallout and neglect and looks to bear apples, pears, and plums. No fanciful touches, no totems that would announce them as artists. Except perhaps a pair of bushes that flanks the cottage door, which on second look aren’t bushes at all but birch trees grown short and round. The artists are all smiles, delighted to give a tour; they offer a lunch of fresh eggs, asparagus, bread and preserves. The bread, they say with chagrin, is Ukrainian government rations; they didn’t have time to make a fresh loaf. After lunch there is homemade raspberry liqueur. The camaraderie of country isolation fades and the questions begin:

Do you think it’s safe, living here, drinking the water, eating the animals or growing vegetables in the soil? Safe? It’s safe in the sense that we know it’s unsafe.

Why do you make people come to you? It would be easy for you to stay here but still communicate with people around the world, send writing and pictures. You could send more work to a gallery. Well, we think there’s something to be gained from crossing the border into the Zone of Alienation. Over the border, the roads become weedy, more like just the suggestion of roads, towns look like either old movie sets or slag heaps, signs seem engineered for nostalgia. But you’ve never heard anything like dusk here. The air, it almost seems to vibrate—with thousands of birds looking to roost and insects in a frenzy, maybe on their last night. And then the wolves start calling. That sound is a beautiful accident, one of a hundred thousand accidents down the line.

But you want other people to risk their health? The only thing that stops or pauses at the border is humans. Birds don’t pause. Animals don’t. Water, wind, soil, pollen, seeds, bugs don’t pause at the border.

How long do you plan on staying here? This is it. We won’t leave now—we’re home.

You know, you make some people very angry. They say you court death, moving to the most toxic disaster areas in the world. That you’re driven by hubris or self-regard—you think you’re impervious or that your art is so important that it’s worth the risk. They think you’re profligate with your health, and it deeply offends them. They say you probably haven’t experienced real pain or illness in your life and don’t understand how pain might deform your minds and not just your bodies. It’s not like a philosophy means much when your bones are turning to chalk. Well. Well. It’s no small thing to hear this criticism. One feels, of course, the sting of being misunderstood. We’re not sentimental about our lives, it’s true. But it took a long time to burn away that sentiment. For many years our minds were relentlessly occupied with images of cell mutation and cell function disruption and unchecked cell growth, unchecked cell death. We held in our mind’s eye side-by-side pictures of healthy and diseased organs, healthy and dented eggs, healthy and paralyzed sperm. Imagine, to name just one example, the masses of prescription drugs flushed through urine streams, then sewage systems, then elsewhere—every pill, every day, every drop going somewhere. And we are that somewhere. We couldn’t pretend that with enough money, a high enough gate, or virtuous enough living, we might escape.

It was an instinct long ago, one we didn’t even name, that told us not to wait in fear for the seepage to crawl up our hem, not to consider ourselves healthy until someone told us we were sick. A ten-day-old fetus has heavy metals in its stem cells. We didn’t wait and order herbs over the internet or visualize healthy white cells or wear masks on heavy smog days or petition governments or purchase plush toys from wildlife nonprofits. We went to the worst of it; we wanted to understand what the future might look like even if we wouldn’t be part of it.

Are you environmental extremists? But what does environment mean? What is extreme? Oceans within oceans that can’t support life? A half-life of 244,000 years? We’ve cast our lot with acceptance and followed it all the way through.

Do you still have emotions? Or have you “evolved past” them? Here is a map of the earth. It shows every area that is either anaerobic, perpetually burning, or radiated. We have a lot of emotions about this map and its color-coding. If you stayed for a few weeks, you might be able to record them all. But here, taste the raspberry pulp in this—here, here’s an emotion. We push the berries through cheesecloth and our fingers smell of it for hours after.

Are you working on a show now? We’re working on a will. It specifies our final show—we’d like our organs to be displayed—both “healthy” and “diseased”—for as long as will be allowed. And microscopes will be available throughout the room with slides of growths. We’re debating about placing magnified pictures of the cells on the walls. Most of all, we would like the visitor to be able to touch the organs and tumors, really get intimate with the insides of a human body. But we doubt this will be allowed.

Why did you become artists? We started making art because we could no longer speak to our childhood selves. Childhood was lush gardens, tubs of clay, fairytales read on porch swings, puddles teeming with life, and drawings of animals that no longer exist or won’t in another fifty years. We loved those children, we love them still. But they were like characters in a book from another century, and they were so lost in this, the actual world, they were so sad.

Did you ever imagine having children yourselves? Factories have children, volcanoes have children, plastics have children, jellyfish have children, nuclear reactors have children. We have enough children.

Why aren’t you afraid? We are afraid. We’re not afraid because it’s so busy here without us.

What if we can’t help but be afraid?

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