Disfigured faces, horribly deformed legs and monstrous tumors and scars characterize the results of more than 400 nuclear tests carried out by the Soviet Union in a remote expanse of Asia.
Forty years of above and below ground nuclear testing by the Soviets has had devastating effects on the unsuspecting landscape and people of the Khazakhstan region in central Asia. The powerful, new exhibition at Duke University Museum of Art titled "Kazakhstan in the Nuclear Age" by James Lerager presents daunting images of the desolate Semipalatinsk Polygon that hosted hundreds of atomic tests between 1949 and 1991. In this collection, Lerager aims to demonstrate the international impact that careless nuclear testing inflicts on the global environment and its people.
The collection of photographs is arranged such that the viewer first sees seemingly harmless photos of sights from Kazakhstan towns. The exhibit then moves on to horribly barren views of the instrument towers on the test grounds and finally the grotesque pictures of children and adults deformed by immense exposures to radiation. Lerager's photographs display the impact of the nuclear testing on every aspect of the Kazakh's life. A piece depicting a children's playground in the village of Karaul shows a trash-strewn lot framing a haunting slide shaped like a rocket, which typifies how nuclear testing has become commonplace in the lives of the Kazakhstan inhabitants.
Lerager's photographs serve as an essay about the experience of the Kazakhstan region. The exhibit captures two rallies, one in a large town surrounding a statue in organized protest and another in a small ramshackle village with men on the backs of donkeys gathered to voice their objection to the testing. Eventually, the citizens of the region saw the end of nuclear experiments in 1991, yet the harmful effects of years of exposure to radiation is still shockingly evident.
Countless people with birth defects, cancer and disfigurement are photographed with in-your-face honesty. A picture of a mother and daughter staring off into the distance seems innocuous until a closer look exposes the horribly disfigured face of the mother who was born, like so many of her peers, with a debilitating birth defect. Photo after photo of nasty, terrible almost monster-like deformities gives physical evidence of the toxicity that large doses of radiation has on the human body. Lerager's carefully captured, up close photographs of the stomach-turning deformities causes the viewer to become angry with the Soviet government's blatant disregard for the health and well-being of the Kazakhstan inhabitants.
The collection closes with more crisp, clear images of grave sights alongside other works of smiling children who undoubtedly are oblivious to the harm and danger unleashed on them. James Lerager's "Kazakhstan in the Nuclear Age" presents an upfront reality into the horrors of the cold war era. The powerful photographs in the exhibit are extremely heart-wrenching and compel the viewer to protest the atrocities of the nuclear age. They demand that the government be held accountable for its horrendous mistakes.
"Kazakhstan in the Nuclear Age" will be on display in the North Gallery of DUMA through March 13. The collection is guest curated by Kristine Stiles, assistant professor in art history, who is currently teaching a course on the documentary photography of the nuclear age.
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