On Ruins, Debris, and Ghosts

The Temporality of Disaster in the Film “Aral, Fishing in the Invisible Sea”

Kseniia Bespalova
In this article, I will investigate the temporality of disaster by focusing on environmental degradation as represented in the film Aral, Fishing in the Invisible Sea (Saodat Ismailova and Carlos Casas, 2004, Uzbekistan). The film investigates the consequences of the Aral Sea disappearing due to a failed Soviet irrigation project by following the lives of the three generations of Uzbek fishermen whose economic survival is under threat. Drawing on the idea that the empire is a “haunting structure” (del Pilar Blanco and Peeren 2013), the article considers the cinematic image of the Aral Sea disaster as a “theoretical object” (Bal 2015: 133) that allows investigation of the damaged relationship between local dwellers and the surrounding material environment. Drawing on Derrida's idea of “hauntology” (Derrida 2006), the article unveils the complex assemblage of ghosts and stories that shape the Aral Sea landscape, impacted simultaneously by past colonial ambitions of altering nature, the failed imaginations of the socialist industrial future, and contemporary global capitalism. Crucially, the figure of the Aral Sea disaster exposes the peculiar role of socialist modernity within the general project of western modernity. Soviet ideology pushed the Western idea of progress to the limits, creating a socialist subject obsessed with the future. Therefore, a post-socialist subject moves "against the flow of time" and "enters the present [the neoliberal modernity] from the future" (Groys 2018: 201). As a result, the dried-up sea, which is also a border between two states (Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan), becomes an image of the uncertain life between the past and future. Ultimately, I will demonstrate how the ambiguous temporality of the disaster transforms a cinematic landscape into the battlefield between the temporal layers, opening up the possibility of reinventing attachments to the land that has been damaged.
imperial ghosts, Aral Sea disaster, environmental degradation, Soviet colonialism, post-socialist temporality, imperial formation, hauntology, ecocriticism.


Imperial Hauntology

Post-Socialist Ghosts in a Karakalpak Village

The temporality of environmental ruin




Suggested Citation


"To think with ruins of empire is to emphasize less the artefacts of empire as dead matter or remnants of a defunct regime than to attend to their reappropriations and strategic and active positioning within the politics of the present" (Stoler 2008: 196).

Today, the Aral Sea disaster, news of which was silenced during Soviet times, is becoming a haunting media spectacle that offers a glimpse into what the future of the planet could hold. Over the course of the last six decades, its body of water has shrunk by more than 90% of its original size since the early 1960s, transforming the Aral from the fourth-largest lake in the world to a barren wasteland (Peterson 2019). While the “slow violence” of environmental change in other parts of the world poses representational challenges for cinema and other visual mediums (Nixon 2011), the Aral Sea disaster captivates with its impossible-to-ignore scale and speed. The stunning absence of the sea (Fig. 1), which now stretches over large distances of Central Asia, is the focal point of a number of films and artworks, including Saodat Ismailova and Carlos Casas' Aral, Fishing in the Invisible Sea1 (2004, Uzbekistan), Almagul Menlibayeva's Transoxiana Dreams (2011, Kazakhstan), Katerina Suvorova's Zavtra more / Sea Tomorrow (2016, Kazakhstan, Germany), Olga Shurygina's Mirazh / Mirage (2020, Uzbekistan), and Anton Ginzburg's Walking the Sea (2013, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, United States), among many others. While a lot of works concerning the spectacle of the desiccated sea convey feelings of fascination and terror, Saodat Ismailova and Carlos Casas' film eschews the aestheticisation of disaster. This allows the film to lay bare the deeper structures of power and violence affecting the Karakalpak village presented in the film and, more broadly, the regions of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In a talk given during focumenta fifteen (documenta fifteen 2022), Saodat Ismailova acknowledges that the film does not speak directly about ecology, nor does it condemn Soviet politics and irrigation experiments. Rather, the film addresses what is invisible and is no longer here.

Created by Uzbek artist Saodat Ismailova and Spanish filmmaker Carlos Casas, The Invisible Sea presents an ambiguous position: it simultaneously offers both the gaze of the outsider and that of the local. Despite living in Europe, Saodat Ismailova is embedded in the art world of her native Uzbekistan and Central Asia. Specifically, her films and installations investigate ancestral knowledge and traditions in relation to the natural environments that were damaged by Russian and Soviet colonial projects. Meanwhile, Carlos Casas’s works address diverse planetary ecologies. Apart from investigating the desiccated Aral Sea, he explored other extreme natural environments such as Patagonia and Siberia. The Invisible Sea ties together the motives found in the works of both filmmakers, weaving the local into the planetary and vice versa. Here, the sea becomes a “theoretical object” (Bal 2015: 133) that condenses multiple local and planetary histories.