Rachel Yurkovich's studio is in an industrial neighborhood on Lakeside Avenue. Void of pedestrian traffic, it might be the backdrop for any post-apocalyptic film. The building itself is riddled with faded greens and deep browns. We take the Otis Elevator up to her floor and immediately feel transported to another time. Yurkovich opens the split door and we enter.
The artist is soft spoken, but her artwork is not. Yurkovich's videos are studies on consumerism, powerful and difficult at times to watch. In "Red Delicious 1-5," for example, she and a team of maggots devour an apple. In another short video, we witness the apple being consumed by a blowtorch; it is quite beautiful to watch despite the apple's demise. It can take up to six months for Yurkovich to complete a video piece.
What brought Yurkovich's work to our attention was her installation at Rooms to Let in Slavic Village this year. Yurkovich was sussing out her experiences in Chernobyl; her piece showed plants bursting through the floorboards in one of the second-story rooms, a commentary on nature taking over where humankind had failed.
In 2014, the emerging artist received a First Agnes Gund Traveling Scholarship; recipients must use the monies for artistic study within five years of receiving them. After two years, Yurkovich had gathered enough camera gear to successfully accomplish her goal of traveling to Chernobyl. She traveled there in May 2016, just at the cusp of spring.
Yurkovich has been interested in the consequences of the actions of careless people for some time. "I had always wondered about it, just this morbid curiosity or just an interest when humans don't occupy an area and things take over," says Yurkovich, who grew up in Prague, but states quite clearly that this detail had nothing to do with her choice. What drew her to Chernobyl was the lack of video footage regarding the nuclear disaster zone, as opposed to still photography.
She traveled with her dad and a tour guide from an agency called Chernobyl Welcome. "They organized and took care of all the paperwork between them and whomever controls the zone. At first I was worried about the strict rules," she says. "We couldn't touch or move anything, which was out of respect for the area and the history. I didn't move anything, but I did touch a lot of things."
To gather the images she required, Yurkovich was going to need to set her tripod legs on the ground. After much discussion, a compromise was reached: It was up to her to wash the radioactive dust off her tripod legs after the fact. She was able to get closer shots with more detail.
The artist and her companions drove in from Kiev, which, at an hour's remove, is the closest city to Chernobyl. They had to go through two check points — the 30-kilometer zone and then the 10- kilometer zone — as they zeroed in on the center. "At first it didn't look like anything else, the trees and road, that is," she continues, "We stayed in a hotel in the city, which was strange. There were tiny convenience stores and lots of stray dogs."
Then they set forth to the locations she had planned for her research. Yurkovich pulls out a highly organized sketchbook with notes and their itinerary. They wandered through various villages and also through the main city of Pripyat, which she had no interest in shooting. They stayed for five days, which was the maximum allowed time due to the dangers of radiation. They stumbled upon some bigger tour groups, but tried to avoid them. They visited old schools where tables and books were strewn everywhere. There was an old football (soccer) stadium that used to be a grass field, that had been reclaimed by the woods. The stadium was practically unrecognizable.
"One of my favorite areas to explore was the hospital," Yurkovich says. "It was really eerie. We were forbidden to go into the basement, which had really radioactive equipment from the firefighters. After my return, I was watching some ghost hunter show where they entered the basement of the hospital. Let's just say that I'm glad I didn't watch that episode before I went. It wasn't scary at the time because it was completely abandoned, void of people except the tour guide and my dad. Unlike any places around here where you might run into someone camping out or homeless and staying here, or any random person. The hospital and areas that had more vegetation were actually quite peaceful. They say some tourists get lightheaded because of all the oxygen put forth by the re-growth."
The images Yurkovich excavated from the trip are stunning and thought provoking. Shown above, the image of a pair of red high heels being devoured by moss is but one of many strong visuals that will be on display at the Sculpture Center starting in January 2018. The space she will occupy has no windows and will be exhibiting the footage taken in Chernobyl. She is charged with filling the rest of the space with other elements, which is, as the artist states, "a good problem to have, but it's tricky." We are sure Yurkovich will be able to see it through.
You can follow Rachel Yurkovich and her work on her website, rachelyurkovich.com, or on Instagram at @rachelyurkovich.