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Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Shop 537.
Ruins. Building 537. 2018. oil on canvas 150x200. Courtesy of Oktava Creative Industrial Cluster, Tula

Instability of memory. On Ruins by Pavel Otdelnov

A monumental painting: a bleak gray sky, like the white cube of the gallery, fills the space of the canvas with frozen air. Pristine snow, as if on a podium, bears an “aesthetic object” — an abandoned factory building with its half-collapsed walls gaping with the insides of a frame well past its design service life. This is a landscape from the Ruins series by Pavel Otdelnov, part of a larger project called White Sea.Black Hole, which gives us insight into the beginnings of his famed urban-industrial narratives.

Otdelnov’s hometown, Dzerzhinsk, throughlines all his stories with a distinct aura. Ginormous chemical enterprises have turned to ruin, and the workers camp where past generations of his family lived has left almost no tangible trace. The private history of a family unfolds as a metaphor of lost time for the city and, in a wider sense, for the country at large. The Soviet myth, given material manifestation in steel and concrete, is crumbling and degrading together with its tangible representation, not due to a series of disasters but due to intrinsic entropy — showcasing a demise of an industrial era, a time of “big doings” and “grand” ideologies. Ruins exist as a relic of the past in the present, always out of place and thus appealing. It is a stop, an island of the past, ripped out of the flow of time and transformed as a general metaphor for abandonment. 

The operative word in the realm of ruins is oblivion. What is there remaining of reality, anything Real? How do you capture the unyielding expiry, disappearance of material artifacts of life? These questions are relevant and traumatic for the artist. Yet, this very trauma is the starting point for his entire body of artwork. The present is experienced by Otdelnov as loss: reality exists through disappearing. For him, an image, as a construct of the actual moment, is always a product of abstract compilation of the shattered past. Ruined objectness is still “here,” in the present, and yet already “not here,” since its time is gone. The artistic world of Otdelnov is comprised of disperse matter where structural void of the gaps seems more tangible than the “nodes.” Dimensionality in his work, minimalistic and virtually devoid of detail, becomes flat; even with all its narrative specificity, it is more like abstract art visually where space is represented through generalized schematizations of dimensionality. 

Trying to commit to painting the phenomenon of this disconnect between an object that once was and its trace as it currently is, Otdelnov creates layers of similarity and images of images. Most works in Ruinsappear to be painted from photographs; there is a dedicated set on the aesthetics of photography: a number of large canvases that reproduce or imitate old newspaper photos. Reality is manifested as its own trace recorded in a photo,

printed on a newspaper page and, finally, recreated in painting. Representation is “raised to the power of three,” its sequence multiplied. The distance between “life” and the observer increases in length. “The characters in my work are not agents of history but objects created by it,” the author comments. There is absolutely no place for humans in Otdelnov’s world where people can exist only through reference to a represented representation. The imagery of old newspapers is, in fact, just as ruined. Characters are depersonalized, generalized down to hollow ideological clichés. The artist imitates the blurry traces of print ink on paper yellowed with age and meticulously paints each dot in the raster matrix. His “portraits” uncover man in between the dots. People are reduced to ghosts, echoes, undertones of a voice long gone.

The main character in the series is the figure of the Absent. Otdelnov’s landscapes exist “on their own,” as an object even when no one is looking. How does the Absent look like? As Vvedensky wrote, does he actually “look like” anything? With a new angle on the rhetorical question of “who’s speaking?” posed by the poststructuralism, the artist continuously asks, “who is seeing?” The lack of human presence plays a role of the crucial negative technique. It is imbued with hyperpresence basically. The agency of this non-present figure is collective in nature, or rather — meta-individual. The culmination of this subjectless view is the painting that imitates Google maps. This perspective, however, which has no subject by definition, also belongs to “everybody” as the ultimate form of “objectivity.” In this sense, the entire series is an attempt at capturing a snapshot of the collective perspective.

There is symbolic meaning too in the motif of sludge that gave the title to the project (the White Sea and the Black Hole are two large sludge settlement ponds). This residue, a formless and tangible remainder of the events and spaces, sludge serves as a metaphor for the “insoluble memory residue” which contains the past realities, changeable and selective just like human memory filtered by experience.

What is there remaining of reality then? The artist’s answer is simple — what remains is painting. This medium is important for Otdelnov, first and foremost, due to its capability to be a “snapshot,” preserving the lost layers of experience reinstated in tangible materials. “The static nature of painting is none other than the statically captured duration itself,” he says. The layered and accumulated time in painting simulates a slowly paced gaze — like with architecture, even if what’s left are mere remains. Unstable memory, thus, lives on, embodied in painting which substitutes the workings of oblivion with an eternal experience of image as lloss.

Konstantin Zatsepin

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins 2
Ruins #2. 2016. oil on canvas 100x160. Private collection
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 3.
Ruins #3. 2016. oil on canvas 100x160
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Glory to Labor
Ruins. Glory to Labor. 2016.oil on canvas. 180x260. Private collection

Herbicide plant

After the war, the factories were repurposed to put out civilian goods. For example, herbicides to eliminate plants alongside railroads, highways or power transmission lines. A huge plant building with “In Glorious Name of Labor and Science” on the facade produced herbicides. It opened in the very early 1970s. My dad, a school student then, was brought there with other schoolchildren to help clean up after construction. The building has been abandoned for two decades now, and there are—as if to spite its original purpose—birch trees growing on its roof.

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Phenol Acetone Shop.
Ruins. FAD. 2016. oil on canvas. 180x260. Private collection
Рудольф Удрис


FAD is one of the best known Dzerzhinsk enterprises where FAD stands for “phenol acetone, Dzerzhinsk” in Russian. The process layout was designed based off of drawings by chemist Rudolf Udris. He fell prey to repressions in 1938 and, while in detention, invented the cumene process for production of phenol and acetone. The plant based on his designs was launched in 1949 in Dzerzhinsk.

Shortly before the launch, the half-blind and severely ill researcher suffering from deep depression took his own life. The Stalin Award for the invention was granted to his colleagues, and his name was stamped out and forgotten for many years.

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Plexiglass Shop.
Ruins. Plexiglass Shop. 2016. oil on canvas. 100x160. Courtesy of Victoria Gallery, Samara
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 4.
Ruins #4. 2016. oil on canvas. 180x260
Александр Леонидович Отдельнов

Aleksandr Otdelnov

Born in 1956 in Dzerzhinsk. After graduating from the Dzerzhinsk Polytechnic Institute, he worked at several chemical plants in the city, including hazardous industries. He built and then for almost 20 years headed the Capella factory, which produced hair cosmetics by Wella, Schwarzkopf and P&G.

The author of the storybook "Do not enter without a gas mask!". Hereinafter - quotes from the book:

The box game was very popular. A matchbox was flicked off the edge of the table and depending on which plane it would land, points were scored: 0, 1, 5 or 10. The one who was the last to score 21 would lose. The case of the matchbox was put on the nose of the loser.  He had to take it off without using his hands solely by means of facial muscles. The loser was forced to make faces and shake his head, making other participants laugh at him.

That night this lot befell Gena the Goose, the owner of an exceptionally big nose. The case of the box was pulled on his nose with great difficulty. It should be noted that Gena the Goose was older than the majority of us. He got this nickname not only because of his nose, but also because he lived in the village and bred geese. This gave us, city guys, plenty of room for making fun of him, which made him very angry. You can imagine what was happening in the smoking room when he, wincing, splashing his saliva and uttering oaths, unsuccessfully tried to shake the matchbox case off from the nose. Finally, the mad Goose ran out of patience, called us f****** goats and rams and jumped out of the smoking-room, promising us to make Khalkhyn Gol*, which, in his view, was the height of the apocalypse.

Those in the smoking room did not take his words to heart, as before the Goose had promised to make

Khalkhyn Gol to many of his offenders. The homer laughter accompanying this “show” had not yet died down, when the Goose wearing a gas mask appeared in the doorway of the smoking room holding a rubber glove filled with liquid phosgene* in his hand. Then we heard an inarticulate moo from under the gas mask and everyone understood that he was talking about Khalkhyn Gol. The glove fell on the floor and the phosgene instantly evaporated, filling the smoking room with the smell of bad hay, characteristic of the deadly toxic substance. In a normal situation, everyone would have died. But nothing happened to us: we did not part with gas masks even in the smoking room and, holding our breath, were able to put them on in a matter of seconds.

Gena, of course, was caught and beaten, but not hurt. It was just phosgene! … We got used to it.

(Khalkhyn Gol. “Korund” plant, Diisocyanate shop, Department 102. 1980)

* Khalkhyn Gol is a local armed conflict between the allied forces of USSR and Mongolia, and Japan, which took place in 1939 at the Khalkhin-Gol river. 

* Phosgene is chemical warfare agent, widely used in chemical production. At room temperature phosgene is a gas; with cooling to 8 ° C is converted into a liquid.

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Control Panel.
Ruins. Control panel. 2017. oil on canvas.60x80
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 7.
Ruins #7. 2016. oil on canvas. 100x150. Private collection
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 6.
Ruins #6. 2016. oil on canvas. 100x150

Occasionally gas flues and traps had to be rapped with sledgehammers and cleaned with special scrapers. During this process the gases from the chlorination furnace would burst into the room, reacting with the water vapor in the air. As a result, a dense poisonous fog of hydrogen chloride, unreacted chlorine and phosgene, would form. In addition, regular (every 2 hours) discharge of the wasted materials from the chlorination furnace noticeably added to the mixture described above. Gas masks and sledgehammers are the main tools of the technical workers in this hell! However, people got used to this nightmare! …

 Once during a shift, I went to see over the working rooms. There was a high gas concentration, usual for regular unloads of waste material blocks from the chlorination furnace. Wearing a gas mask, practically in zero visibility, I was slowly feeling my way through the condensation room. Suddenly, my hands touched a rounded object. Strange, nothing like this is allowed in this room! I took the object with both hands and tried to bring it closer to my eyes, or rather, to my gas mask. Then I heard an inarticulate moo.

To my amazement, the object itself rose, and I realized that  it was the head of a man in a gas mask! Holding the head with both hands and backing to the exit, I led this man into the corridor. There he could take off the gas mask.

- Semikov! What are you doing here?

‘I am having a bite,’ he answered, removing his gas mask and continuing to chew. And then I noticed in his hand a piece of smoked sausage.

- How do you eat in a gas mask amidst such gas? Couldn’t you find a better place?

- Everything is ok, boss: you pull off the mask and bite it. The only problem is that my jaw gets tired from chewing. I am wearing a new mask, the rubber is too tight! Anyway, I don’t have time to go to the stuff room, the process goes well and the drums* should be removed soon, otherwise they will overflow!

 (Sausage. "Caprolactam" plant. Shop 33. 1984)

*Drums are special tanks in which products are stored.

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 9.
Ruins #9. 2016. oil on canvas. 100x150
Якорь 1
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 10.
Ruins #10. 2016.oil on canvas. 100x160.  Oktava Creative Industrial Cluster, Tila
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Interior 10.

Penetrating the pores of the skin, TDA* vapors actively interact with water and paint the skin in a bright yellow color. The entire shift we had to work in rubber coated gloves. My hands naturally sweated and as a result, my hands became ocher-tinted. I was embarrassed to give a handshake, especially with new acquaintances, and I had to explain that I am not a Chinese and do not suffer from jaundice. Not only hands! Sometimes after a tiring night shift, after a shower I would lie on a clean white sheet, and upon getting up I would discover a yellow outline, like an epitaphios on the sheet! Doing the laundry my wife would call this “Chinese trace”. 

 (Transparent cockroaches and "Chinese trace". "Caprolactam” plant. Shop 31. 1986; "Korund" Plant. Diisocyanate shop. 1980)

TDA (toluenediamine) causes eczema, asthma, affects the liver, destructs the red blood cells.

Ruins. Interior #10. 2017. oil on canvas. 60x80
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Diisocyanate Shop.
Ruins. Diisocyanate Shop. 2017. oil on canvas. 100x150
Цех диизоцианатов
Aleksandr Otdelnov in the closed Diisocyanate Shop
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 1.
Ruins #1. 2015. oil on canvas. 150x200. Private collection

At 6:30, the gas emission stopped. The morning shift came and the night shift workers went to the shower. Gena were not among them. At first, no one paid attention to this: you never know, the foreman can be busy somewhere. At 7:00 a morning shift chlorination room operator raised the alarm, when he discovered that the chlorine pressure gauge and flow meter showed “0”, while the carbon monoxide* recorder showed a flat line at 150 cubic meters per hour. This meant that carbon monoxide entered the chlorination furnace and, unable to enter into reaction without chlorine, went directly to the off-gas system*. Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odourless gas, a few breaths of this gas lead to loss of consciousness, brain hypoxia and ... death.

 While the carbon monoxide supply was quickly shut off, it turned out that the chlorine supply was already shut off by someone! But by whom? And where was Gena Katorov?!

He was found at 7:30 in the off-gas chamber on the platform where the ejector*, responsible for rarefaction, was located. The hatch for cleaning the injector was open, it was probably Gennady who opened it, and all the gas from the chlorination furnace rushed not into the gas outlet pipe, but into the room.

He lay in a gas mask near the open hatch. The concentration of carbon monoxide was so high that even a special hopcalite filter*, which was added to a chlorine filter, turned out to be useless ... Gena died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

 According to the results of the investigation, it remained unclear who cut off the supply of chlorine. Maybe Gena himself, or maybe one of his shift mates decided to “help” him avoid the discharge of both chlorine and chlorination products. No one thought about carbon monoxide, because this gas is odourless and invisible. Everyone was in a hurry to complete the shift and go home ...

 (Gena Katorov. "Caprolactam" plant. Shop 33. 1983)

* Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odourless gas. If mixed with air it is explosive; is harmful when breathed.

* Off-gas system is a pipeline system for transporting off-gases (gases generated during the production process, some of them are recycled, others are freed of contaminants and released into the atmosphere).

* Injector is a device for the rarefaction ofgases and creating vacuum.

* Hopcalite filter is a special filter for neutralizing carbon monoxide. 

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Ammonia.

Ruins. Ammonia. 2017. oil on canvas. 150×200. Private collection

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Gasholder.
Ruins. Gasholder. 2018. oil on canvas. 150х200. Private collection

December 31, 1981 was a very frosty day, the temperature dropped below 40 ° C. However, no frost could spoil the pre-New Year mood of the workers of the transport shop diesel depot. The entire night shift came earlier in order to allow their evening shift co-workers catch the train and join their families at the celebration table. At 21 o'clock the entire shift, twelve men, went to shower.

 At that time, in the 33 shop, the supply of both chlorine and carbon monoxide* to the chlorination furnace was cut off. At the same time, gas pumps continued to drive the oxide into the gasholder * until it overflowed. Since the gasholder was three hundred meters away from the factory building, the workers did not notice the overflow. In addition, it was dark, cold and everyone was in a hurry to get home. New Year was around the corner!  The bowl of the gasholder rose to its maximum and bumped into the upper limiters,

but the gas pump continued to supply carbon monoxide. An overpressure was created in the pipeline, oxide pushed the brine out of the hydraulic seal* and burst out through the overflow pipe. A firm ice shell formed around the crater, preventing the gas from discharging into the atmosphere. Oxide was nowhere to go. It rushed into the sewer and found the nearest exit – to the men's shower of the diesel depot.

All the shift perished, all twelve. Right on New Year's Eve …  

 (Carbon monoxide. “Caprolactam” plant. Shop 33. 1984)

* Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odourless gas. If mixed with air it is explosive; is harmful when breathed.

* Gasholder is a large tank in which gas is stored.

* Hydraulic seal is a device for preventing the substance from contacting air.

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Shop building.
Ruins. Shop building. 2016. oil on canvas. 150x200
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Zarya.
Ruins. Zarya. 2019. oil on canvas. 150x200. Uppsala Konstmuseum, Uppsala, Sweden

That day, during the morning shift, chlorobenzene was to be transferred from the tank car to one of the 31st shop empty tanks. We put together the piping system, connected the pump, and the transfer began. Usually this procedure takes 3-4 hours. However, this time it was slower. The first shift finished their work. In the shop workers congratulated women on the holiday and drank tea with sweets. It was time to get home. The operator of the transport shop hurried to pick up the tank car, but it turned out that it had not been emptied. They began to search for the cause. At first they thought the problem was in the pump, but the pressure in it was normal. Then they inspected the pipe, the gates ... Finally, they realized that the receiving tank’s relief system was clogged or frozen. The technician climbed the container to loosen the relief system flange. He used ordinary wrenches, which he always had at hand, instead of special ones made of non-sparking alloy — where would he find time to go to the workshop to fetch them? 

 It was time to go home! …

 According to the official version of the investigation, there was an overpressure in the tank due to the blockage of the relief system. During the dismantling of the relief system with an appropriate tool, an arcing could occur.

 The next day I met my friend. He told that the day before when riding a tram to the city he saw through the window how suddenly a fireball took off behind the factory fence. He and his friend joked, ‘Kaprolactam plant workers launched a rocket ...’

 It turned out that, indeed, they launched it, moreover there was an "astronaut" aboard.

(Rocket on March 8th. “Caprolactam” plant. Shop 33. 1985)

* Relief system is a piping system used to control or limit the pressure by releasing gases to the atmosphere.

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Construction.
Ruins. Construction. 2016. oil on canvas. 60х80. Uppsala Konstmuseum, Uppsala, Sweden
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Tetraethyllead.
Ruins. Tetraethyllead. 2017. oil on canvas. 100x150

Kolya was a gutsy guy, he had his own plan. He proposed replacing the broken valve with a new one.

‘We should slowly remove the old valve, the line is still crammed, install a new one, dig a pipe. When it sprinkles, we close the valve and that's it!’ Nicholai put forth his plan.

The risky plan almost succeeded. We began to install a new valve. Apparently someone inadvertently hit the pipe and the silica gel* plug jumped out of the choke as a cork out of a bottle of champagne! The product poured from the tank directly into the puddle! Our heroes threw the valve and jumped out of the huge cloud of fog on the leeward side.

The scope of the disaster was hard to imagine! The fog was so dense that, stretching out your hand, you could not see your fingers. It was impossible to breathe: hydrogen chloride (HCl) as part of the aerosol mist irritates the throat and lungs. Before the rescuers arrived, figured out what was going on, installed a new valve, a third of the tank, which is almost 20 cubes, had spilled on the floor.

Fortunately, a strong wind was blowing from the plant towards the river. Not only the northern part of the plant, but also the surrounding villages were covered with a fog. The fog reached Oka and crawled towards Dzerzhinsk. The river traffic stopped. It is hard to imagine what could have happened if the wind had blown in the opposite direction! There are technological shops with dangerous chemical agents, an office, a canteen, a medical unit, a railway, a motorway, and many people who have never put on a gas mask ... Thank God no people were seriously injured. They coughed for some time until the wind blew the fog away.

 (Kerosene. “Caprolactam” plant. Shop 33. 1983)


* Silica gel is a gel-like substance (mSiO2nH2O), which results from the interaction of SiCl4 with water. When dried silica gel adsorbs and holds water vapor. When interacting with water fumes in air.

Якорь 2
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 12
Ruins #12. 2018. oil on canvas. 100x150. Courtesy of DK Gromov, Spb 
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Interior 5.
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Interior 6.
Interior #5. 2016. oil on canvas. 60x80
Interior #6. 2016. oil on canvas. 60x80. Private collection

At the first moment we were deafened and blinded. The gas masks lenses were instantly covered with a thick layer of dust. The breathing tube in the filter cartridge was clogged up, it became difficult to breathe. Following the forceful release of gas from the hatch, a cascade of red-hot blocks fell on me. My cloth jacket, pants and boots began to smoke and smoulder ... I still do not know where I got a shovel, with which I covered the hole of the hatch, protecting myself from the fire. This shovel with a charred handle blocked it. 

In the meantime, with buttons ripped out of his jacket and the zipper on his pants torn, my assistant escaped from under the bar that blocked him.

Getting out of the corridor half-filled with red-hot blocks he tumbled head over heels down the steps. The path was clear! I followed him ...

Having jumped out of the shop to the street, we took off our gas masks, threw off smouldering jackets, pants and boots right on the snow and stayed in only our underwear. It was uncommon to see such a “show” at a chemical plant: men, barefoot, in unwrapped footwraps, white underpants and body shirts leaping in the snow! … And our joy knew no bounds! We laughed, like children, at each other, at our ridiculous look, and only later realized that a moment ago we were on the very edge ... 

 (Goat."Caprolactam" Plant. Shop 33. 1983) 

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. 11.
Ruins #11. 2018. oil on canvas. 100x150
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Obstructin
Interior. Obstruction. 2017. oil on canvas. 60x80

Winter. Day off. Morning shift. I was the shift commander, on duty at the central desk. I looked out the window and ... was stupefied. The director's Volga was parked by the shop. Holy cats! The general director himself! Usually you would see him only at meetings, but now ... Moreover on Sunday! Suspicious that something was up, I rushed to the car, adjusting my boiler suit, which was not quite clean, and gas mask. The doors of the sublimation room swung open: in the gas clubs (hydrochloric acid, chlorine, phosgene* etc), in a winter coat and a muskrat hat – general director himself!

The legs themselves shifted to marching step, I reported, ‘In the 33 shop there were no incidents, we keep working the plan, shift commander Otdelnov.’

 I noticed that he was annoyed, he said, ‘Who are these thugs?! They have almost beaten me! Well, okay ... I have come here for treatment – I have a running nose, it seems I have caught cold. I want to breathe chlorine for prevention. When will it be discharged? I'll wait here by the tray.’ 

 Along the entire length of the shop, there was a concrete tray, into which water was supplied under high pressure. Every two hours, blocks of waste material were unloaded from the chlorination furnace to the tray and then by hydrotransport transferred to the dump.

At this moment, together with waste material blocks, puffs of gases, chlorine and steam would burst out along the entire length of the tray. I would never think of curing a running nose with this mixture, but the director of the largest chemical enterprise had his own vision of “pharmaceuticals” ...

 The director left safely and I began to enquire into what happened. The guys in our shop were tough. Although some of them had never been in prison or in an Occupational Therapy Center*, they were gutsy guys with good chances to get there. One of them explained to me, ‘A d ***, with neither a mask nor a boiler suit entered the shop. I didn’t know who he was so I banished him!’ 

 A week later, at an Occupational Safety meeting, the general director cited our shop as an example, ‘I inspected the factory. The sign “Do not enter without a gas mask!” hangs on each door, but only in the 33shop it is observed! I was not allowed to enter ...’

 (A cure for a running nose. “Caprolactam” plant. Shop 33. 1980)

* Phosgene is chemical warfare agent, widely used in chemical production. At room temperature phosgene is a gas; with cooling to 8 ° C is converted into a liquid.

* In the USSR Occupational Therapy Center was a form of compulsory treatment for drug addiction and alcoholism

Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Facade
Ruins. Facade. 2018. oil on canvas. 100x150
Pavel Otdelnov. Ruins. Spring day.
Ruins. Spring day. 2018. oil on canvas. 150x200
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