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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Fiery Trials of Ryan's 'Millennium'

After a long run of bad luck back home in Australia, the artist Dominic Ryan thought he had moved into a new phase of good fortune on the eve of his exhibit in Russia.

Thousands of dollars, reams of stamped-and-approved documents, and several months later, however, he acknowledges that the great cultural exchange he had envisioned has turned out to be something altogether different.

As a foreign artist with an anti-war, anti-violence message to convey, he imagined he would find a receptive audience in Moscow. His exhibit, "Millennium," a painting in six panels that is 10 meters long by 6 meters high, probes the dark fears of nuclear annihilation, AIDS and environmental destruction.

But getting the works here, and getting them displayed, he said, has cost him time, money, personal relationships, and almost the destruction of the apocalyptic works themselves, despite goodwill from Russian and Australian sponsors.

After the exhibit's opening in Melbourne in 1992, accompanied by much international fanfare, Australia's Foreign Affairs Ministry helped Ryan launch what he hopes will be a global tour, beginning with one of the world's largest nuclear powers, Russia.

The International Federation of Peace and Conciliation, a former Communist Party cultural arm, invited him here and secured a showing in the 17th-century hall of Moscow State University's Institute for African Studies.

The works were shipped via St. Petersburg in September, but when they arrived, Ryan said he saw to his horror that one of the six metal canisters required to ship the massive piece had been ripped open. Miraculously, the painting survived unscathed. But when he went to erect the work in the University hall, the building administrator took one look and refused to allow its showing. He claimed that the scaffolding would damage the hall's floor.

Ryan spent five more months trying to secure another place to show it in Moscow, finally settling on the nearby Journalist Faculty of Moscow State University, across from the Kremlin.

It was not the first time his work had elicited a strong reaction.

The painting, the size of a wide movie screen, depicts in gray-blue and white the sword of Damocles hanging at the end of a long road, piercing a mushroom cloud. In the foreground, husbands and wives, families and individuals pay the terrible consequences. It is filled with symbolism. To the right, through a sort of window, a brilliant alternative beckons, one of peace and reconciliation.

The message is clear, and for anyone confused by the melange of symbols, he spells out in accompanying brass plates in English, Russian, Japanese and Arabic his appeal: that the world recognize that the exercise of free will is central to humanity, and that no individual or government has the right to prevent someone from living out his free will; that love is the way out from under the sword.

The work now being shown through March is not the first version, but is, he feels, the best. The original painting was destroyed in 1988, when it was nearly complete, in an inferno-like fire in Melbourne that leveled the Cairns Memorial Church which had allowed him to paint in the rear of their cathedral.

Police found that the fire was no accident. An arsonist, who told police he was a Satanist, said he could not allow it to be finished, and so he destroyed a fixture of central Melbourne with it.

Over the years, he said, the work was accompanied by other disasters: divorce, the attempted suicide and mental breakdown of a girlfriend, a car accident that injured another friend, death threats.

"I had to ask myself if what I was doing was right," Ryan said.

But he persisted. In response to a meeting in Indonesia with a psychic healer last year, he decided he had to incorporate the Buddhist idea of yin and yang -- good in the evil, darkness in the light. So now, the sword pierces a white flower, and a handkerchief-like shadow interrupts the vision of love and peace.

"Then there started to be a sense of harmony, and I thought all that was over," he said, "until I came to Russia."

In the too-small hall where the work now stands, visitors wander in an out. A startling number have felt compelled to leave gifts: books, a scarf, a flower. Others felt compelled to take. About $500 was stolen from his jacket, leaving him unable to pay some workers, he said.

Now, he says, his goal is to find new sponsors to send the exhibit on another leg around the world. The other nuclear power, the United States, is at the top of his list, as are Japan and the Middle East, eventually, if possible, Sarajevo.

Places that have known the price of war and destruction will be most receptive to his work, he believes. And when he gets home, he plans to begin the next work, perhaps a continuation of "Millennium." Undoubtedly, he said, it will incorporate what he has seen in Russia.

"The Russian experience is a paradox," he said.

"Millennium" is at the Journalists Faculty of Moscow State University, auditorium no. 233, 13 Mokhovaya Ulitsa.