Following the media interest in the political impact of Gabriella Hirst's artwork 'An English Garden'*, an iteration of her 'How to Make a Bomb' rose project, I would like to offer some reflections on the aesthetics and politics of the work and its withdrawal.
The artwork is a formal bed of newly propagated ‘Atom Bomb’ roses on former MOD land, upriver from MOD Foulness, designed to reflect upon the history of Britain’s nuclear colonial legacy and its ongoing impact. The artwork was commissioned for Estuary 2021 by Metal and The Old Waterworks with all the correct permissions procedures in place. The garden had permission to be there until 31 August, but was removed on 23 June. The garden was removed due to threats from local Tory councillors who have acted without due political process, leading to an undemocratic act of censorship.
It seems clear that the events surrounding the work are evidence of its political and aesthetic importance. Not as simply a rose garden, but a lovingly crafted and grafted project which cultivates the entanglements between horticultural and nuclear colonisation. Plants are already political (see Ros Gray and Shela Sheikh), and Hirst's work knowingly cultivates the tensions and subtleties of nuclear post-colonial gardening. These histories are still with us, the lands are still contaminated, and people remember. The past is leaky, and the armaments developed at Foulness are part of the history of the UK nuclear weapons programme, it’s hard to identify where it begins and ends.
Sadly the UK suffers from an unregulated tabloid press, full of hate-speech and vitriol which still has a strong political influence. The tabloids are an instrument of nationalist bigotry designed to whip up sensationalist scandals, including pro-nuclear, racist and colonial horror; Brexit is one of its achievements. The bully tactics of far right UKIP politicians aligned with tabloid style social media are easily manipulated for political ends and are extremely intimidating. I can only imagine the genuine dread of a small curatorial team faced with this threat. To be able to deal with this scenario you really need political allies across the spectrum, and a well briefed team who understand the issues in advance.
Perhaps the city councillor was offended by something so beautiful being so politically engaged. From my experience whilst the form of the work can be falsely perceived as benign, its interpretation is not, and the question of the plaque is the political framing of the work in relation to site and context. Aesthetically what is important here is that the form is always political, in that every kind of beauty exists in a socio-political and geo-political context, you only have to look. The memorial setting of the plaque mounted on a bench was subtle and considered, but was nevertheless engaged with the nuclear present. Whilst public statue's celebrating slavery are being toppled, Hirst's work acknowledges both historical and contemporary responsibility. It is a contemporary artwork afterall, and there are still explosions at Foulness.
The removal of the artwork is a very sad situation indeed. It seems that although the garden was commissioned in response to a nuclear site, no-one fully anticipated the agency of the artwork, and the decision to remove it was made before a support team could be put in place. As I understand it - the aim of the removal was to protect the media space around the artwork and enable the curators to take control of how the work is communicated in the public sphere, and in many ways this has been effectively managed by Estuary Festival’s press agency. We can also think about the concept of withdrawal as an active decision (eg to withdraw labour on a strike, to withdraw from an arena of conflict in order to solve the problem in a different way). To withdraw to a position of safety, regroup and return to the problem, is a sound tactic. If you withdraw, then you can go back....
Yet the considered articles in the Guardian are unlikely to reach the tabloid readers, breaking through a social media bubble is hard to do without losing control. Perhaps a media storm would have had better reach? The complaining councillors clearly have no grounds for any of their arguments, and are now back tracking on their threats. There were no public complaints, and the councillors are clearly acting alone rather than in their role of representing their constituencies.
There's clearly been a lot of work behind the scenes to get sensible press coverage, and to gather allies. The support from the British Nuclear Test Veterans is vital in shifting the right/left terms of the debate. British test veterans witnessed the bomb built at Foulness being dropped on Montebello as part of Operation Hurricane, this is part of our nuclear heritage. The English roses here are not a symbol of the fifteenth century wars of the roses, but another undeclared war where weapons have been tested on indigenous communities and the British soldiers involved in the operations. In this way British nuclear colonialism starts with uranium mining (Gabrielle Hecht), but ends in testing and commemoration (Gabriella Hirst).
Another issue to consider here is the role of artwork as a form of direct action, where a performance takes place to reveal sites where political power is enacted. If we consider the Atom Bomb roses as revealing the hidden histories of Foulness and their connection to the nuclear present in the public space of Shoeburyness, then we might consider them as a form of performative action. Traditionally art commissioners are ill-equipped to prepare for art as direct action in this way. They don't have the affinity groups, legal support and political allies in place. There's a lot for curators to learn from this event. But what can we do to help now?
As many of you know Gabriella Hirst presented her Atom Bomb project at the Nuclear Culture Research Symposium in November 2018. In the days when we could all squash into a room at Goldsmiths and share our work and ideas. https://nuclear.artscatalyst.org/content/nuclear-culture-research-symposium
Curator Warren Harper met Gabriella at the Symposium and they have been working together ever since. Learning how to graft and cultivate roses takes years of patience, and Warren has helped to develop the critical context for the work in Southend in proximity to Foulness, partnering up with The Old Water Works and Metal, as well as organising several iterations of the artwork across Europe. I was delighted to show the project as part of the Splitting the Atom exhibition at the CAC in Vilnius last year: https://nuclear.artscatalyst.org/content/splitting-atom
The work was integral in tracing the connections between British nuclear colonialism in Australia and the 1950s nuclear family complete with rose garden, (see Kate Brown's Plutopia). It's extremely hard to locate an artwork at a nuclear site, especially one that critically engages with its history and present political responsibilities. It's reinstatement would be an acknowledgement of the significance of the work, and open up opportunities for future public art commissioning that engages with nuclear culture today.
Withdrawing the artwork has highlighted the need to resolve this censorship issue at a political level rather than the bully tactics of a few individuals. Now that the grounds for removal have been dismissed, and the importance of the rose garden as part of our nuclear culture has been clearly established with support from the British Nuclear Test Veterans, it is time for it to be reinstalled.
It is vital that artists working with nuclear culture around the world can work without fear of censorship, and that nuclear issues can be critically debated in the public sphere.
Donna Ferguson, ”Not in this town’: artwork about Britain’s ‘nuclear colonialism’ removed” Observer, 17 July;
Tim Burrows, “Why are Tory councillors in Essex censoring artwork?” Guardian, Opinion, 19 July;
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Freedom of speech? Not these days, if you’re an artist in Britain, 20 July 2021.