Ghetto of Vice
The noonday equipoise of this city of one million trembles at the leafy juncture of tree and its ripening yield. Lean and filthy, children shatter beer bottles with pieces of stone outside the windows. The rumbling from the asphalt fractures the quiet of the yard, and little ones squeal over the harvest of diamonds from the broken glass, mixing in profanities with their sporadic cries of joy.
This “southern palm” – Odessa – has cycled through 220 years of transformation and reimagination as it slowly and surely transitions from urban wonderland to that of a more conventional habitat – a place where outlying areas influence behaviors as well as trends in societal breakdown. The wind of hope and the spirit of the age are departing from the city, and the urge for creation is supplanted by destruction.
Coastal cities are stoppered bottles, shifting sand, and leaky boats, and the spreading cranberry of vatic legend, where the mask of sentiment and noonday sighing send the cockroaches of discontent and domestic strife scurrying to their corners.
These amble nearby at a crawl as on pins and needles something like migrants wearing the grin of the inebriate, unsobered by the heraldry of the days of men, and with each coming dawn sealed for them before evening falls, the foul, flat setting of the sun marring all what may come. This is the interminable festival of evil, the relentless algorithm of exigency. The season of excess and defecation of vile speech and comportment, where time effaces the marker of new days, and leaves only remnants of a solitary quietude.
Odessa, the senescent widow bereft of providence, the single mother of a raft of children, compelled into the sordid embrace of an auctioned heart, her sin borne close, caught up in the holdings of this killing season.
The concept of the ghetto appeared more than five centuries ago, and yet this term sprung from the Italian describes precisely the form and function of existence in every quadrant that would not conform to an urban identification. He who would kick over the sandcastle of his playmate simply because that one has happened into something greater than just the amassing of quotidian instincts.
Odessa is mired in more than mere subatomic decay, but that of a formalized inertia. Thermopaned balconies and humming air conditioners provide only temporary relief – the most current anodyne for the consciousness -killing codependence of a throwaway routine.
Like Holden Caufield, victor and victim of his own caustic tongue, Odessa art is relegated to the margins in rare exhibitions by local and itinerant purveyors in the craft of sarcasm. Old standbys warm the hearts of the cheering masses, the younger tribe loiter nearby adding emphasis to expressions that too often fall short of resolution.
Odessa floats its hologram scraped from storied walls, where new work by whomever the spirit moves puts the final touches on the vestiges of past narratives. Migrant workers and cops on a pension, yardmen in the early morning, and fading clerks in their cabinets combining to descend into a final summation that gives shape to this ghetto of vice.
The town of Cherkassy boasts a third the population of “the Southern Palm”, but with a perspective and flavor no less rival despite its size. A city that mirrors the Odessa outskirts, if absent the latter’s inherent vulgarity. In Odessa, it’s not a matter of water, but of some southern wind that reshapes tram stops into public urinals and tabletops at seaside clubs platforms for live sex. And though Cherkassy, hemmed in by forest and field, and with no outlet to the sea feels little inclination for these drunken antics, its dearth of gallery space and its single folklore museum gives little visible credence to the presence of artistic investigation.
Its pre-revolutionary buildings, randomly boarded up, the steam and smoke of the city, its ancient water tower, forests and bridges, and its tired claim on anarchy renders Cherkassy a ghost-town caught in the tension between rights and responsibilities and faith in the right.
It is not for nothing that I chose these two cities for comparison. I have lived in Odessa for thirty-two years, working nearly every day to capture on film the progress of its disease and the changes brought about in its deterioration. In Cherkassy I stayed for a half-year, absorbing its history and the spirit of contemporaneity of the place. Its place on the map of my homeland, Ukraine, is that of a ghost-town. This measure of years passing is not comparable with a static half-year glance into an darkened mirror. These are just notes in the margins of stories of the workaday and the holiday and everyday madness. Yet the ghetto of vice and the ghost-town are met by the same fate, where the spectrum of souls encountered live out their singular lives and battle their personal, practical demons in the writing of the authentic history of the place.