Over the course of eight years, from 2008 to 2016, members of the international, Poland-based Sputnik Photos collective set out independently to explore the physical, political, and sociocultural terrain of post-Soviet regions. In the process, the collective built a composite documentary record comprised of several thousand photographs that geographically and thematically span the breadth of the former Soviet Union. Rather than adopting a photojournalist or documentary approach to generate visual narratives, Sputnik Photos have approached their archive conceptually, compiling images into the overarching Lost Territories Archive (LTA) project. LTA is the basis for an ongoing sequence of exhibitions, books, and installations by the collective. Each of the emerging themes touches upon an important aspect of the post-Soviet area.
For the installation at Brookfield Place, a select number of large-scale images revolve around notions of palimpsest. Of Ancient Greek origin, the word “palimpsest” derives from the concept of “again rubbed smooth,” referring to writing material where the original text has been partially erased and written over again. Of particular relevance to this project, the word also has geographic associations to a place or landscape where something new is imposed over traces of past histories. It implies an interaction between the physical terrain and human impact, evoking layered and intertwined geological histories and cultural identities. A palimpsest both reveals and conceals its history. The various republics that remained after the collapse of the Soviet Union have all been subjected to continual restructuring and renaming over time. While such changes are often chronicled by maps and are evident in the physical environment, their psychological implications require tenacious effort to trace and recover.
Throughout Sputnik Photos’ installation, references to traces of the past overlaid with manifestations of the present are repeatedly made visible, revealing the remnants of the former Soviet Union and the after-effects of its desired utopian systems. Anaklia, Georgia (2013), for instance, features an image of an unfinished viewing tower in the midst of a barren landscape. It points to a not uncommon type of ruin that can be found across the post-Soviet empire, based on abandoned political edifices that were initially constructed at great cost. Yangiabad, Uzbekistan (2015) depicts a broken bridge over a river in Yangiabad—a town built by the Soviets in the 1950s after the discovery of its rich uranium deposits. Extensive mining continued until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, leaving behind high levels of uranium in the water, and much of the infrastructure in ill repair. References to man-made environmental impact are made in Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, Kazakhstan (2016), which depicts the Soviet’s primary testing location for nuclear weapons. The site, located close to a small town, left the region exposed to levels of radiation that were kept hidden by authorities until the site closed in 1991.
Other presented images at Brookfield Place feature censored graffiti, an abandoned broadcasting company, images of border architecture, and various ad-hoc responses to different geological and socio-cultural issues. Elements of both real and imagined scenes are included, such as a neglected museum display, and a faded mural depicting a resort on the Black Sea. Every image speaks to some kind of ghostly imprint—whether ecological, physic, or corporeal—of a convulsive past that lingers in the present. Displayed on free-standing walls situated throughout the Allen Lambert Galleria, these images resonate with the surrounding architecture on various levels. In the context of the palimpsest, the building shares a layered past: the Galleria integrates a stone facade taken from a nearby 1845 structure that housed various banks before it was demolished. Dismantled stone by stone, the facade was then reassembled at Brookfield Place, existing as a remnant of the past. These surroundings also serve as stark contrast to this body of work. The open atrium, often described as a “crystal cathedral of commerce,” epitomizes a thriving financial environment, placing it at odds with these images that capture the remnants of a fallen Empire and its failed utopic plans.
Sputnik Photos is Andrej Balco, Jan Brykczynski, Andrei Liankevich, Michal Luczak, Rafal Milach, Adam Panczuk, and Agnieszka Rayss.