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The Plain Dealer | Steven Litt   |  March 10, 2019

Fallout dogs of Chernobyl and requiem for child who died escaping slavery: On view at Spaces

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Culture is replete with stories of man’s hubris and the consequences of technological overreach, from the myth of Prometheus to reportage about climate change.

Julia Oldham of Eugene, OR, takes a fresh approach to this theme in “Fallout Dogs,” a wrenching, documentary-style video installation on view at Spaces in Ohio City.

Oldham’s piece, which runs about 15 minutes, is a highlight of the current suite of projects at Spaces, which runs through Friday, March 22, and which also includes a powerful installation by Johnny Coleman of Oberlin.

Still from "Fallout Dogs," by Julia Oldham. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

Oldham’s visual narrative introduces viewers to stray dogs that populate the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

An explosion and fire at the plant in 1986 sent a radioactive plume into the atmosphere. The Soviet government soon evacuated 100,000 nearby residents, some of whom were forced to leave pets behind.

“Some residents recall seeing dogs chasing the evacuation buses and howling for their owners,” Oldham states in one of the passages of reportorial writing that punctuate her project like bits of text in a silent film.

Still from "Fallout Dogs," by Julia Oldham. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

Filmed over five days in May, 2018, Oldham’s project involved recording stray canines living amid the trashy, post-apocalyptic ruins of Chernobyl and a nearby town.

Oldham’s visual storytelling is restrained, which intensifies the catch-in-throat pathos of her project. Yet she also knows just when to insert the right amount of context.

A few moments after showing an image of a dog with a bloody left forepaw, Oldham informs viewers that thousands of people work every day in the exclusion zone to contain the radiation in buildings, garbage and the soil. The job is likely to continue for decades.

Still from "Fallout Dogs," by Julia Oldham. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

“Many of these workers care for the dogs, feeding them, addressing their injuries, and giving them love,” Oldham states.

One such worker is Ludmilla Jeraschko, a translator and guide who has made it her mission to feed and care for the strays.

Oldham’s camera follows Jeraschko, a young woman in leggings, with a dyed, spiky haircut, as she feeds, examines and cuddles her four-legged charges.

Still from "Fallout Dogs," by Julia Oldham. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

Oldham informs viewers that the dogs suffer from radiation, disease, cold and starvation, rarely surviving more than four years. But every spring and summer, she states, “puppies are born and the cycle of life begins anew for the strays.”

Chernobyl is old news, overshadowed by more recent manmade disasters, including the dangerous warming of the planet.

By returning to an historical disaster zone, Oldham gives viewers a glimpse of what the future might look like in a poisoned world left to weeds, brush, and abandoned dogs. It’s a scary one.

Detail of "Crossing the Water: Requiem for Lee Howard Dobbins," by Johnny Coleman. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

Coleman, who teaches at Oberlin College, takes on a similarly topical subject in “Requiem for Lee Howard Dobbins,’’ a gallery-filling installation devoted to the memory of a four-year-old black boy who died in Oberlin in 1853.

Dobbins accompanied his mother and adopted siblings on their flight from slavery in Kentucky across Ohio to Oberlin, a jumping off point for escape to freedom in Canada.

Alas, the four-year-old was too sick to continue the journey, Coleman writes in a flier accompanying his show. He soon died among a family of strangers who agreed to care for him in the hopes he would recover and complete his journey.

Detail of "Crossing the Water: Requiem for Lee Howard Dobbins," by Johnny Coleman. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

Coleman evokes Dobbins’s short life and lost hopes with objects including a delicate boat suspended in mid-air, a wooden dock planted with sprigs of dried chamomile, and pair of scarecrow-like figures who bear witness over the scene while standing amid dried oak leaves.

The installation is a lamentation over the racially restricted promise of freedom that has warped American history.

Detail of "Crossing the Water: Requiem for Lee Howard Dobbins," by Johnny Coleman. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

Intended or not, the project also has an obvious resonance with the Trump Administration’s policy of separating children from parents seeking asylum at the Mexican border.

The circumstances in Dobbins’s case are different. He was trying to leave the U.S., not to enter it. But Coleman’s gentle evocation of Dobbins’s story is a poignant reminder of how crossing borders to escape violence and injustice can break up a family, with tragic results.

Detail of "Crossing the Water: Requiem for Lee Howard Dobbins," by Johnny Coleman. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain DealerDetail of "Crossing the Water: Requiem for Lee Howard Dobbins," by Johnny Coleman. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain DealerStill from "Fallout Dogs," by Julia Oldham. Photo: Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

REVIEW

What’s up: “Fallout Dogs,” by Julia Oldham, and “Crossing the Water: Requiem for Lee Howard Dobbins,” by Johnny Coleman.

Venue: Spaces gallery

Where: 2900 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

When: Through Friday, March 22.

Admission: Free. Call 216-621-2314 or go to Spacescle.org.

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