A team of artists, including six from Teesside, is visiting the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident which happened nearly 30 years ago.
The impact of the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine – which killed 31 people and affected tens of thousands with radiation – is still being felt today.
The 14 artists have called themselves the 26:86 Collective after the day and year of the disaster. The areas they visit and people they meet will inform and inspire work which will be shown at exhibitions in the North East.
The head of the group, lecturer and embroidery and textile artist Claire Baker, drives past a nuclear power station every day on her way to and from work at Cleveland College of Art and Design in Hartlepool.
“Most of my students are aged between 18 and 21 and some of them had never heard of Chernobyl,” she said. “I’m trying to bridge the gap between 1986 and now and make it relevant for everybody, because its impact is still being felt today. We are not making a political point, we just want to produce art that might make people think a little bit more.”
Claire, who lives in Norton, visited the site last year with her twin daughters – graphic artist Laura and photographer Lucy – and partner Niall Kitching, a graphic designer and stencil artist. They are all making the self-funded trip later this month and will be joined by artists from Sunderland, Leeds, Manchester and Lincolnshire, designer Gavin Vaughan from Hartlepool, photographer and fine artist Alyson Agar from Middlesbrough and artist and graphic designer Nicola Golightly, also from Billingham.
Nicola said she has already been inspired by the story of the firefighters who showed “suicidal heroism” as they tried to stop the fire spreading: “All of those firefighters who went in were almost blind to the dangers, but did so because they knew how important it was to tackle the fire – and ultimately gave their lives,” she said.
“In the past few years I’ve been on quite a few research trips to exhibitions and galleries – going to see art, going to see studios and people who make and do. But visiting Chernobyl is a real experience which will inspire my work directly. There are elements of the visit I’m scared about, but we’re hoping to help people understand by our interpretation.”
Much of the area around the power station is still highly dangerous. The nearby town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people, is abandoned and an enormous dome – nearly the size of St Paul’s Cathedral in London – is being prepared to replace the “sarcophagus” of concrete and steel which it was hoped would stop radiation spreading from the damaged reactor building. The dome will be in place for at least 100 years and then itself will have to be replaced.
“Chernobyl was caused by human error. It was an accident. It’s not that I’m saying I’m against nuclear energy, I just want people to think about the implications of Chernobyl as well as the waste that’s produced by all nuclear power stations – which is there for ever,” said trip organiser Claire.
The exhibition by the 26:86 Collective will take place in Hartlepool next year and there are plans to take it to other venues throughout the North East and further afield.