We don’t live on this earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it.
In the aftermath of an unexpected moment, we experience the world in heightened ways. We look at familiar things noticing their texture for the first time; we hear, smell and feel in new and intense ways. Our perspective shifts to cut through all the white noise, and some vital aspect of being human and living on this planet comes into view.
When Victor Berezovsky read Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich he experienced this phenomenon—albeit secondhand. In this book Alexievich records the experiences of the people of Chernobyl remembered seven years after the town’s nuclear reactor exploded and burned for several months. On his recommendation, I read it too. Multiple voices recount the experience of the disaster and its aftermath. They describe what happened to them but also how that experience transformed the way they felt about the landscape, the animals, their neighbours, the government, the national character, the Soviet Union, their health and that split-second shift from before to after.
Reading this book also gave me the sense of a particular Russian voice and attitude, a poetic philosophising, a sense of history that is so different from the ways of thinking about the world that occur in the South Pacific where I live. Aotearoa is Victor’s birthplace, but both his parents were born in Manchuria in north eastern China, part of a large community of Russians. And like many children of immigrants, he has the experience of a hyphenated life—one informed by two different environments, cultures and sensibilities. As an artist, this provides him with a broad range of aesthetics to draw from.
When Victor rang to invite me to his studio to look at a new series, Faithful Companions, he described the effect of reading Chernobyl, the way images flooded into his head and made their way onto the large sheets of paper. Over the years he has spent a lot of time in Europe. Most recently he and his family lived in Dresden, and there he made a point of frequenting the city’s museums. Where formerly his work was characterised by a restrained colour palette, in Germany, inspired by historic and contemporary painting, a rich colour sense took over his practice.
The paintings in Faithful Companions are exuberant with colour but a shadow hovers beneath their surface. This is quite literally created by technique. Victor coats the paper first with a vivid blue wax, then on top of that adds black Gesso. Next he scratches imagery into the surface scraping away the black to reveal the blue underneath. And then in a kind of automatic painting, he adds bright coloured inks on top.
A few days after visiting Victor and looking at his new paintings, my father was killed on the road outside his house. Grief and sadness fogged everything. I flew to Invercargill with one of my sisters and we arrived in time to welcome his body into the house and begin the processes—emotional, logistical and legal—of fare welling him.
Like one of Victor’s painting, the first night in his house was eerie. Our mother had died just over a year before and with both parents ‘gone’, the house felt hesitant as if they might return at any moment. I realised I was listening for the lavender Toyota and the graunch of the garage door opening that would signal their return. But the night remained silent and still. My sister and I looked at each other in wonder. The TV, usually playing the Jones Channel or Good Morning or sport, was dark and quiet. She was on release from rehab so we couldn’t drink any of his whiskey. And I didn’t eat sugar anymore, so the cake tins held no interest. We were alone in the world. We were orphans. We needed something to do.
We resorted to lighting fires.
I had left behind some Chinese lanterns on a previous visit. We unwrapped one to figure out how it worked. Delicate red paper was folded around a ring of bamboo through which crisscrossed wire with a loop at the centre. As we unfolded the lantern, a square of cellophane fell out. Inside was the waxy fuel with a hole in the middle which slipped on and over and was fastened with the wire loop.
On the lawn outside we flicked the lighter to the fuel waiting for the flame to take hold and unfolding the paper tentatively beneath it. But it wasn’t making sense.
—Doesn’t heat rise? my sister asked.
I needed to look at the instructions again.
Inside I recovered the wrapping and studied the instructions. She was right.
By this time the fuel had burned out, so she went inside for a fire starter from the pack Dad kept beside the wood burner. She attached it to the wire and taking a side each, we flipped the lantern over so that the flame was underneath.
Gradually the lantern filled with heat from the flame and slowly floated upwards rising above our heads. It was a pink glowing heart. It bobbed around for a moment, a pink blob against the dark rural night. Then it wobbled towards a tree in the middle of the lawn. We ran after it. We were good daughters. We didn’t want to set the tree alight or burn the house down. But now we knew how the lanterns worked and there were more. That was enough for our first evening as orphans.
As the oldest, it fell on me to muster, cajole and mediate the arguments of my six siblings. Each day another one arrived, and more lanterns were sent off on the breeze, their fiery trails drawing lines in the night sky.
By the evening of the wake everyone was there. Seven orphans. Once only the closest relations remained, we assembled on the lawn around the brazier and together in pairs we lit the final lanterns. Blue, yellow, red and purple, they lifted off one after the other, bright circles rising and rising in a trail of dotted light against the black canvas of the night. Then slowly disappearing out of sight like old stars.
The funeral was the next day. With the help of the undertakers we moved the casket from the bedroom and into the lounge. Before the lid was put on the coffin, we sang Dad all his favourite John Denver songs, cried, and kissed him goodbye.
When I returned to Victor’s paintings a few weeks later, I found their melancholy and sadness palpable. The black Gesso under the images intensifies the colours so that the images exude tragedy, pathos and desperation. The style and approach to image-making locates Victor amongst his German contemporaries—artists like Neo Rausch and Tilo Baumgärtel who live and work in Leipzig. But where they use more traditional painting methods to create their contemporary history painting, Victor’s approach is more reminiscent of expressionism with its mixture of abstraction and recognisable form.
Animals are the principal characters in Faithful Companions. Two goats clutch each other in a bathtub. Another drifts across a yard littered with debris. A rabbit traverses a scorched landscape, and a sick-looking dog lunges at a mysterious object. The animals are stressed and in crisis; the landscape appears to be on fire or backlit by sublime dusks or shattered by the lurid neon of a city. In another image a man lies on a mat on the floor. He’s sleeping so soundly that he can’t hear the goose screaming at him. And this reminds me of the stories in Chernobyl where people remember how the forests went quiet, how birds fell out of the sky, and how the animal-life sensed the disaster before the humans. It also reminds me of the film maker in Chernobyl who talks about showing his films about the disaster to children:
They asked all sorts of questions, but one really cut into my memory. This boy, stammering and blushing, you could tell he was one of the quiet ones, asked: “Why couldn’t anyone help the animals?”
In other paintings, figures hover in doorways or the image is framed so that we look through to domestic scenes scorched by the unearthly light but continuing with chores and family life. And throughout all of the paintings are objects and devices from Victor’s own archive—symbols and cyphers of his Russian sensibilities: the geese, the shovel, the funnels, the particular shaped kettle, the shonky trolleys. These landscapes are his response to the book and the disaster but also, I think, an acknowledgement that Chernobyl could have been his life, his landscape.
The worst part, the least comprehensible part, everything was so—beautiful! That was the worst. All around it was just beautiful.
In a split second the universe can change. One minute we are going about our ordinary routines dulled by familiarity, and then something unseen and unexpected happens that alters everything forever. Dad’s death wasn’t anything like Chernobyl. But like the quote from Alexievich, the bitterness of the experience was heightened by beautiful moments and refreshed my sense of the world. I looked at the landscape around his house and for the first time understood the placement of his chair. Beside the fire, yes. In front of the TV, definitely. But most importantly at a perfect angle to view the sky and the giant clouds that congregated and dispersed across a gentle roll of hills. He watched TV but he also read the weather and the sky and looked at the land. He had spent most of his life outside as a farmer, so weather was everything and it never stopped intriguing him.
Reading Alexievich, the humbleness of the voices of the men and women who live on the land remind me of Dad. They want nothing more than the chance to eat the tomatoes and the cucumbers they’ve grown in their poisoned gardens.
Every day I’d dream of my house. I’m coming back to it: digging in the garden, or making my bed. And every time I find something: a shoe, or a little chick. And everything was for the best, it made me happy. I’d be home soon…
And I see all of this in Victor’s Faithful Companions—the poignancy of the tragedy. Like the experience of the people of Chernobyl, the beauty of the world has become magnified in the same instance as it is tragically altered. Our vision of it shifts as its impermanence and vulnerability are exposed.
From ‘Monologue about the shadow of death’, Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl, p193.
 From ‘Soldiers’ chorus’, ibid, p38.