Censorship and forced removal of an art installation in Essex, following complaints and threats from Tory advisers, marks a worrying escalation in attacks on democratic rights and artistic expression in Britain.
An english garden, by Gabriella Hirst, was a rose garden installation in Shoeburyness, near Southend on the Essex coast, reflecting on ‘the violent legacies and historical trauma of atomic weaponry’. It has been attacked by conservative advisers as a “direct attack by the far left on our history, our people and our democratically elected government”.
Britain’s first nuclear weapon was assembled near the site in 1952 and then shipped to indigenous territory in Australia for testing. Hirst, born in Australia, wanted to invite reflection on the “devastating” impact of 12 British nuclear tests on indigenous lands between 1952 and 1963. The indigenous communities of the Maralinga Islands, Emu Field and Monte Bello were exposed to the tests and displaced by them.
Hirst wrote that the garden “reflects the historical and present identity of Britain as a colonial nuclear state”. She described Britain’s imperialist agenda as a “gardening of the world,” in her cultivation of the land claimed for the needs of the empire. His project was prepared over several years.
In 1953, to mark public interest in nuclear technology and the Cold War, German rose grower Reimar Kordes created a rose variety of Rosa floribunda, “Atomic bomb.” After early success, the strain lost its popularity, unlike, as Hirst and Tory Warren Harper note, nuclear weapons and the political rhetoric that go with them.
In 2020, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook identified a global inventory of 13,400 nuclear weapons, 3,720 of which were deployed with operational forces. Hirst and Harper noted that the Johnson government lifted in March of this year of 40% caps on its stockpile of Trident nuclear warheads, writing that “it’s one minute to midnight yet.” “
Hirst and Harper set out to re-circulate the now “endangered” “atomic bomb” rose to draw attention to this story and its current political manifestation. They found a cultivar and set about propagating new generations of the variety. They produced an instruction guide, ” How to make a bomb “, to encourage what they describe as” a civil horticultural agency “that will provide” a space for reflection and dissemination of the anxiety of the atomic age, calming the mania for living in the age of nuclear stalemate constantly undulating “.
Southend-based artists’ charity The Old Waterworks (TOW) hosted the How to make a bomb project for nearly three years, providing a basis for propagation and enabling Hirst to conduct further research.
TOW produced an artist’s book of the project, which was to be included in the Estuaire 2021 exhibition. As part of a commission from TOW and Metal, an artistic transformation project of historically significant buildings into cultural community centers, Hirst installed An english garden at Gunners Park, Shoeburyness, for which Metal had obtained the appropriate business license. The exhibition was to last until the end of August.
The rose garden was centered on a display of ‘Atom Bomb’ roses, bordered to the southeast by ‘Cliffs of Dover’ irises, a variety also cultivated in 1952. On the garden benches around the flowerbed were plaques of brass recalling the history of British nuclear weapons locally and internationally and drawing symbolic associations in horticulture. Photos of the works is visible on the artist’s website.
On June 21, a group of conservative local councilors launched a systematic campaign of complaints about one of the plaques, calling its contents offensive and obnoxious. The plaque accuses Britain of making the choice “to devote considerable resources to the industries of violence instead of the care industries” and repeats Hirst’s description of its “continued identity as a colonial nuclear state”. Counselors issued a 48-hour ultimatum to remove the plaque. Otherwise, they said, the Council would step in to censor him and launch a national media smear campaign.
They stepped up the pressure on TOW, Metal and Hirst, demanding the text of the plaque be changed under surveillance. TOW said this “would undoubtedly have changed the content and meaning of the artwork, shifting the intentions of the artwork and putting words in the artist’s mouth.” If this did not happen before 6 p.m. on June 23, the councilors threatened to “take action against the construction”. A small portion of this correspondence was published in its entirety, but Metal described the threat as attracting “national attention by highlighting what was their fundamental misreading of the work.”
At the head of the elected officials involved in this assault on democratic and artistic expression, James Moyies, director of the Vote Leave campaign for the East of England, and former adviser to UKIP. He was kicked out of UKIP for simultaneously supporting the conservatives, confirming unanimity across the far right of the ruling class.
TOW said he was not aware of any other negative responses to An english garden before the intervention of the advisers. They said Moyies’ comments “crudely interpreted the artwork and provided inadequate and vague justifications without any satisfactory evidence.”
Moyies claimed the work was “inappropriate at a council-owned site,” although the licensed and licensed installation appears to have been carried out on privately leased land. The attack on the facility was not carried out by the council, but “on behalf of the conservative group of Southend councilors”. This raises questions about the extent of the threats and intimidation that led Metal to pull the job on June 23.
TOW said there had been “no positive engagement” from the advisers, “who threatened to play dialogue through the media, bypassing all attempts at reasonable discussion.” Metal said it has made its decision to remove the facility “to protect the welfare and mental health of our small team of staff and volunteers in Southend from possible adverse effects which may result from any” action “taken against it. work on the basis of a distortion of the real meaning of the work and our intentions to include it in the program of Estuary 2021. “
Metal’s surrender to this blatant act of censorship allowed Moyies to say, with repulsive smugness, that “the situation has been resolved amicably.”
Hirst wrote on Facebook: “Apparently the government and its nuclear arsenal on a global scale were not considered robust enough to withstand the dissemination of historical fact and criticism via a rose garden art installation. “
TOW spoke in dismay about the victory given to Moyies and his cultural thugs. “Art is intended to spark debate, provoke reflection and encourage new ways of seeing the world, it should not be closed off because what it offers does not correspond to the points of view of individuals, in particular when based on extensive research and historical facts. “
History, they write, “is not just a celebratory fanfare and it is everyone’s right to be able to explore the nuances of this shared history and how it has continuing impacts today.”
The Southend incident is just the latest in a growing wave of censorship and suppression of works of art. At the same time as the events in Southend were being reported, footage of a police raid on the east London arts complex Antepavilion emerged. The target was an installation on the roof of the Project Bunny Rabbit collective, Throughout the watchtower, targeted because it looks like a bamboo and cable structure used by climate action group Extinction Rebellion during protests.
Artist Damian Meade posted CCTV footage on Instagram showing the large and aggressive raid of June 25, carried out under section 18 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
The Metropolitan Police said it was taking “proactive measures” against the potential activity of the Extinction Rebellion. Meade commented that police raided Antepavilion “with the intention of removing [ All Along the Watchtower ] (but failed). “
Five people were arrested, all subsequently released. They included building owner Russell Gray, arrested for ” dangerous driving g “when he got on his motorbike to find out what was going on. The police, he said,” thought the resemblance to a structure used by Extinction Rebellion in some protests somewhere was sufficient. “
The shift towards the historical and political realities of artists like Gabriella Hirst and Project Bunny Rabbit is a healthy and encouraging development. Its urgency is only underlined by the use of ever greater weapons of censorship and repression against any form of expression or critical thought.