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MISO AND THE ART OF NUCLEAR TRAUMA via Pacific Standard

The Ukrainian artist Miso captures the Chernobyl tragedy in millions of pinholes—creating maps of trauma that feel at once fragile and powerful, ephemeral and enduring.

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Pinchuk, or Miso, as she is also known, works out of a studio in Melbourne, Australia, although she spends most of her free time in Japan and other countries. In 2013, the National Gallery of Victoria acquired two of her pinprick works, making her one of the youngest artists featured in the collection. Since then, Miso has received accolades not just in the fine arts, but also for the intricate stick-and-poke tattoos that she trades with friends (including United Kingdom pop stars Sam Smith and Florence Welch), and with people she meets in her travels. In exchange for a home-cooked meal, a bottle of whiskey, a painting—anything but money—she adorns their skin with tiny constellations, symbols, or minimalistic maps, such as the outline of a daily commute. She is also known for hand-painting custom leather jackets for celebrity clients, such as Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and Cara Delevingne.

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As the end of her twenties—the decade in which the art world first recognized her as a serious artist—draws nearer, another milestone far outshines it. This spring Miso completed the final installment of a trilogy she has worked on over the past three years. Each of the three installations (titled “Surface to Air,” “Fallout,” and “Sarcophagus”) includes vast paper “tapestries” that catalogue places on Earth that have known trauma: Ukraine, Fukushima, and Chernobyl, respectively. Visually, the hand-hammered pinholes in these works mimic the stitches of a woven tapestry. But, indecipherable to the viewer, the holes also act like data-points scattered on a plot—each one representing a piece of information, such as an elevation, radiation level, or a sound. While most of the data is based on real measurements collected by Miso on site visits, some are informed more loosely, by her memories and dreams.

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The first installment of her trilogy, shown in 2015, maps the topography of ever-changing borders and conflict sites in war-torn Ukraine through a series of paper tapestries. Miso was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, which, for the first three years of her life, was part of the USSR. The landscape where she grew up had been permanently altered by civil war, famine, and Nazi occupation. Since she moved to Australia at the age of 10, her homeland has been further riven by conflict. The name of the installation, “Surface to Air,” is a double entendre—referring to surface-to-air missiles developed during World War II, and to the idea of submerging and resurfacing emotionally as a response to trauma. The works themselves reflect this duality; some of the pin-pricked data maps are stylized to look like floaty, gently crumpled sheets of cloth, while others take the form of erratic, gestural slashes.

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The following year, with “Fallout,” Miso chose to focus on Fukushima, the site of one of the largest nuclear disasters in world history. She was living in Tokyo in 2011 when an underwater megaquake hit Japan, triggering a massive tsunami. Power outages at three nuclear reactors near the earthquake’s epicenter shut down cooling systems, and the tsunami wiped out back-up generators, causing a nuclear meltdown. Hundreds of civilians died while evacuating the area, and thousands more (including about a dozen plant workers) could be affected by radiation exposure in coming decades. Seawater, which plant workers pumped in as a last-ditch effort to cool down the reactors, was found to have leaked back out, contaminating surrounding waters. Miso’s series of works in “Fallout” are functional, literally mapping the physical contours of the landscape. But unlike typical topographical maps, the dotted grid-lines designating each curve of the Earth’s surface are light and airy, designed to emulate the abandoned piles of fishnets she came across while visiting the site years later.

In some ways, Miso says that growing up in Ukraine prepared her for living in Japan following the disaster at Fukushima. “I was surprised by how ready I was,” she recalls. “I had an understanding of contamination and food supplies, and that Tokyo should have been evacuated.”

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Miso says she headed straight to New York City after visiting Chernobyl, trying to distract herself from the weight of being in such a place, and from the dreams that still haunted her sleep every night. Many of her friends in the West, hearing about the fruit trees, mushrooms, and wasps that had returned to the area around the meltdown, seemed pacified by the idea of Chernobyl being “reclaimed by nature.” 

“It enraged me,” she says, “because it hasn’t been ‘reclaimed.’ I remember it [before the disaster] as this incredibly bountiful land. We have a saying that if you drop a seed it’ll turn into an apple tree. German soldiers during World War II were taking truckloads of this earth back into Germany, that’s how fertile it is. And now there’s this really weird, invisible poison.”

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“Sarcophagus” went on exhibit in late April at the China Heights Gallery in New South Wales, where the whitewashed floorboards of the gallery space echoed the stark whiteness of the tapestry, recalling the layer of radioactive ash coating every surface after the accident. Laid flat in its glass display case, the work runs roughly half the length of a London double-decker bus, each of its hand-formed pinholes a testament to the artist’s tenacity. 

“It was backbreaking,” Miso says. But she felt, given the subject matter, it needed to be big. “It’s almost like an act of penance.”

Read more at MISO AND THE ART OF NUCLEAR TRAUMA 

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