Pavel Otdelnov is one of Russia’s most acclaimed artists. Trained as a realist painter he has developed an artistic language where the grand course of events is filtered through a subjective lens. Promzona is his four year-long research project, a family saga, epic, yet closely related to his personal biography. From the utopian Soviet society of the 1930s to today’s Russia.
The Russian word Promzona means industrial zone and the artist has applied a journalistic method and searched through archives, linked maps to drone and satellite images, conducted interviews, and converted his motifs into drawings and paintings. What emerges is a toxic scandal, with polluted areas left stark and full of strongly pigmented color.
Otdelnov depicts a utopian society viewed in the rear-view mirror. The once so energetic industries have become a landscape of ruins. Nature has taken over and traces have been swept away. What is left is a collection of stories that today seem like myths, about people who lived and made sacrifices. Promzona can be viewed as a time capsule, a sort of quasi-museum in five chapters that together map this particular zone.
Rebecka Wigh Abrahamsson
curator Uppsala Art Museum
About the artist
Pavel Otdelnov was born in 1979 and lives in Moscow. He is a graduate of the Moscow State Academic Art Institute V. I. Surikov and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Moscow.
Otdelnov has received several awards, and was named Artist of the Year by the Cosmoscow Foundation in 2020. He has been nominated for the Kandinsky Prize four times, and in 2021 was one of the finalists.
Otdelnov is represented at state museums such as the Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow) and the State Russian Museum (St. Petersburg), and in private collections in Russia and worldwide.
Promzona was shown at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art in 2019, and at NCCA Nizhny Novgorod in 2020, as part of the Innovation Prize exhibition.
His recent project Ringing Trace was a part of the Ural Industrial Biennale 2021.
This project is tied to the history of my family. I was born in Dzerzhinsk, the capital of the Soviet chemical industry. Three family generations before me had worked at secret chemical plants there. My grandmother had come to a factory workers camp from a remote village shortly before World War II broke out, as many new industries were under construction and needed extra labor. The jobs were very hazardous and demanding. Grandmother began with assembling payloads for chemical bombs and then worked at an aircraft plexiglass factory. My grandfather worked on the same shop floor, where they eventually met. Their children, my dad and aunt, went to work for the same factory after school; in the 1970s, such continuity was a matter of pride and was called a “labor dynasty.”
This project focuses on the industrial estate around my hometown of Dzerzhinsk — a major chemical industry cluster. Most facilities in its eastern part were built in 1939. Their primary purpose was to produce chemical warfare agents, and during the war the output was extremely high, even though chemical weapons were almost never deployed by either side. After the war, the plants were putting out feedstock for a broad range of Soviet industries, for example, caprolactam to be used as the base for synthetic fibers, or plexiglass, fertilizers, herbicides, tetraethyllead, DDT, phenol acetone, PVC.
As the centralized command economy became a thing of the past in the 1990s, the most lucrative industries went private, whereas most other plants were shut down as unprofitable. Major employers in the area were going bankrupt one after another. Today, many of the unused facilities stand either abandoned or completely destroyed.
As though this very recent past has been erased, huge factories have fallen into ruin. There is barely any trace left from the workers camp my ancestors lived in. The stories narrated by my grandmother sound like fairy tales. This project is about oblivion, about mythologization of real historical events, about nature reclaiming land. Trees are growing through concrete slabs and destroying buildings. Soviet history, conceived as a myth, is turning into ruins of antiquity, having failed to become reality. Perversely, actual accounts lose their power of factual reality, are being reshaped and adapted to generalized perceptions, and become what we conventionally term as history.
My dad was born in a workers camp and gave his entire life to chemical industries around Dzerzhinsk, within a couple kilometers from where his life began. “Best useful where born”, as we say in Russia, is a perfect description of my father. As a child, every night I saw a bucket of water heated up by my mom to boil bedsheets. Bedding always got yellow from chlorine and phosgene compounds that saturated the skin despite full-body hazmat protection. The shops that my dad worked at were among the most harmful at the plant. Even so, his memoirs have loads of humour that sometimes helped to survive the most dangerous of situations.
This highly-toxic blister agent was manufactured in Dzerzhinsk from 1939 to 1959. The production facilities were deactivated and then, in the 1990s, fully dismantled. Its output, dozens of tons per year, was never used. Those who suffered the most harm were the plant workers.
The production process was primitive and lacked modern protective measures. The shop air was saturated with mustard gas vapors. Frequent spills were covered up with sawdust to be later decontaminated with bleach powder. Neither a gas mask, or rubberized
overalls, or boots and gloves could prevent skin damage, acute eye or respiratory poisonings. Each shift had a double crew. One crew to do the work while the other was being treated. [...] Massive worker deaths began after the war, mostly in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, depending on exposure and lifestyle. The cause of death was cardiopulmonary failure, slowly but inevitably progressing. The condition was untreatable.
From In the City of Big Chemistry. A Memoire by I.B. Kotlyar
On Feb 12, 1960, there was an explosion in Bldg. 6 of the Caprolactam Plant caused by a gas leak. A powerful blast wave shattered the glazing and window sashes in surrounding villages and even at the Gorky Automotive Plant ten kilometers away. All 24 workers on the shift died. The casualties were buried in different sections of the cemetery to prevent large crowds. Secret service set up a perimeter around the cemetery for the time of the burials and only the affected families were let in. A great deal of non-disclosure paperwork was signed. Although everybody heard and saw the explosion, the media chose not to cover it at the time. I carefully poured over all local and factory publications dated February 1960—not a single word about the tragedy. But there was a helicopter photo in a plant archive. You can make out black ruins of a building torn down by the blast. I converted it into a “newspaper” photo and painted it on a large canvas to fill this gap in the historical memory.
Factory newspapers contain a lot of reports on rallies and meetings to support the course taken
by the party and the government. As a rule, the workers voted in favor of those decisions “unanimously.”