The Chernobyl Herbarium

Anais Tondeur, Chernobyl Herbarium triptych 1

Chernobyl and Plant Life: Silent Witnessing

It is incredibly difficult to talk and write about Chernobyl. No serious book on the subject has been able to dodge the task of thinking about the conditions of possibility for thinking in proximity to this theme or this scene. Still before commencing, a work on Chernobyl must first decide how to broach a theme that incessantly reverts back into the unthematizable.

The very structure of witnessing breaks down there where the event, with all its extraordinary, groundbreaking, and death-bearing potential, practically merges with everyday life thanks to its imperceptibility. What is there to say about exposure to radiation that cannot be seen nor smelled nor heard nor touched nor tasted? Those of us who have been in its eerie neighborhood resembled objects, onto which certain effects have been inflicted, as opposed to subjects in control and aware of what is going on.

Anais Tondeur, Chernobyl Herbarium

Bypassing our consciousness, material witnessing has been incorporated into us, becoming a part of the flesh: the radiation accumulated in the thyroid gland, the elements of strontium that, imitating calcium, have bound themselves to the bones… Consciousness has been exploded not so much as an aftereffect of a violent shock but due to becoming superfluous. What is there to say, save for certifying the death of consciousness, which has outlived its usefulness when it comes to helping orient us in our environs in the wake of an unwieldy, unmanageable technology it, itself, had brought into being? All that remains is to perform an autopsy on it and to write its obituary, while envisioning the birth of another consciousness…

Plants, too, live through occurrences without formulating them in speech. Their articulations are wholly material; the patterns observable on their extensions, from tree rings to the position of branches, are bodily witnesses to a history of growth and to its milieu. True: it is difficult to talk about Chernobyl. Then why not delegate testimonial acts to living beings that do not speak, at least not in human voices and languages, except if they are characters in sundry myths and fairytales? Why not assign such acts to plants? In some respects, Tondeur does just that. Were we to follow her artistic lead in thought, we would allow exposure to be translated into expression, and vulnerability — into a way of bearing witness.

Lines of light do not illuminate… They bring out the testimony of the plant and of the soil wherein it grew.

Take a careful look at the pistils of this Linum usitatissumum. Aren’t they both the radars, receiving stimulation from every side, receptive to pollen’s secrets, and the loudspeakers, re-broadcasting wordless messages? Through the unique medium of photograms, Anaïs Tondeur lets plants speak by spatially expressing themselves and the earth contaminated with radionuclides. Lines of light do not illuminate — from the external, neutral, and disengaged position of the third — the obscure traces of what happened. They bring out the testimony of the plant and of the soil wherein it grew.


The Learned Pig


Pripyat’ is stuck, a ghost city frozen in time. There, it is still, and will always be, April 1986. The Soviet Union has not yet folded upon itself; the drab and grey apartment blocks offer evidence of the uniform solution to the housing problem that imparted to the neighborhoods of Moscow, Baku, Riga, and Tbilisi the same impersonal character; the rusty Ferris wheel whispers what it remembers about the amusements of children who took rides in it and who will continue on this circular journey indefinitely, forever staying six years old.

Similar to pre-disaster reality, the disaster has never ended there, either. Everything mutely screams about it: the blackened clothes left to dry underneath apartment windows for decades, the empty streets, the libraries with books scattered on the floor. This silent scream of the things themselves cannot be stifled, even if, at times, Pripyat’ River becomes the new Lethe. What do those who embark on “nuclear tourism” to the exclusion zone feel there? At what level do they forge a connection with this deeply traumatized time-place bespeaking traumatized and shattered bodies and mind?

Pripyat is not any place; it might not be a place at all.

(I understand, clearly, that a vast majority of tourists do not establish a meaningful connection to the places they tour but pass through them like the afternoon breeze. Pripyat, however, is not any place; it might not be a place at all insofar as its temporality and habitability have been irreparably disrupted. How does one pass through what does not pass, does not become a past? That is the question.)

Lest we be misled, eternal immutability is little more than a metaphysical daydream, notwithstanding the substantiation it receives from nuclear waste that eschews decay. Changeable beings par excellence, plants throw a challenge to metaphysics, in Pripyat’, where they are taking over urban spaces, and elsewhere. Defined by metamorphosis, they metamorphose the places where they grow and, if given free range, swallow up sidewalks and squares, buildings and roads. Not by chance, the new euphemism for the zone of alienation in Belarus is “Polesie State Radioecological Reserve [Zapovednik],” which extends the language of conservationism to hopelessly contaminated and, therefore, “untouchable” terrains, alienated more thoroughly than before. Plants will gently gag the silent scream of things. Where there was devastation and abandon, there will be a forest.

Anais Tondeur, Chernobyl Herbarium

That said, it is doubtful that the forests of Chernobyl would last, unless the insects and microorganisms that play a central role in the process of decomposition return and resume the decomposition of dead vegetal matter. If this does not happen, the mineral nutrients in the soil will be depleted, endangering future growth.

We might say that the herbarium is, likewise, a time capsule, keeping the shapes of vegetal matter that used to be alive and is now dry, brittle, fragile. A herbarium of lights and shadows, Tondeur’s “Chernobyl Herbarium,” is, in turn, a phenomenological memento, a keepsake of phenomenological impressions that supplant the formed matter of the plants themselves. It is a relic of a perceived instant, the silhouettes collected in it belonging neither to the surface that cast it nor to the viewer.

Through her herbarium, Tondeur has succeeded in creating an intermediate space extricated from the contrast of change and immutability, a series of delicate moments on the verge of their disappearance. Her work with and on plants is a buffer between the mute scream of beings exposed to extreme radiation and its soft muffling by the (vegetal) life that goes on, moves on, survives. The photograms do not betray the trauma, the stuckness of the drive that prompts us to freeze the instant and be scorched in its eternal present, the never-ending high noon of unregistered experience. But neither do they revel in the traumatic stoppage, deepened or prolonged. If you attend to them with care, with a gaze which is not that of a visual tourist, they might give you a clue to a difficult, existential riddle: “How does one pass through what does not pass, does not become a past?”


The Learned Pig


Diminution of noise emanating from what we call speech, voice, reason:
But language does not evaporate, does not vanish into thin air.
Time to attend to the silent witnessing of plants and works of art.


These fragments are extracted from The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness, by Michael Marder with images by Anaïs Tondeur, published by Open Humanities Press.


The Learned Pig


Michael Marder

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU, Vitoria-Gasteiz. His work spans the fields of phenomenology, environmental philosophy, and political thought.