PARTS of Britain paralysed by worsening floods, an annual outcry over rising energy costs, the ongoing debate about finding new sources of energy and how they could adversely affect the climate, which might be causing the floods…
Just when did we lose our faith that science could solve our energy problems and make the future a better, brighter place?
These are among the issues subtly explored in a topical new exhibition of paintings by Nottingham artist Sean Cummins held at Nottingham Trent University’s Bonington Gallery between March 12 and 28.
In The Potato Eaters Discover Cold Fusion Cummins has juxtaposed the themes of an early Van Gogh painting and a posed, stagey photograph of a nuclear power station control room in 1963 as the basis for a series of paintings which touch on failed dreams of utopia, the eroded belief in science and the once optimistic view that nuclear energy would provide Britain with endless cheap energy.
The paintings, and the public relations photograph they repeatedly explore, reach back to that period in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Government was building nuclear reactors across Britain. The reactor control room in the photograph is from a nuclear power station at the Winfrith site in Dorset, which was opened in 1961. Its complicated arrays of analogue circuits, switches and dials – of some fascination to Cummins – can be seen as a tactile echo of the faith in a nuclear future and the larger belief that science was a force for good.
But when and why did the nuclear dream turn sour? And if Britain doesn’t start generating more power from low-carbon nuclear in the future – as Gaia scientist James Lovelock now believes it has to – then what are the implications for climate change?
“I’m not saying these paintings are part of a solution, or even thinking of them as making a political point, but they are evocative of a moment in the late 1950s and early 1960s when there was a belief that science could not only provide us with lots of energy but also solve many of society’s problems,” says Cummins, who is course leader of the BA Fine Art course at Nottingham Trent University. “What happened to those beliefs?””
The exhibition is Cummins’ first major solo show in Nottingham and also marks a new and more public-facing stage in the history of the Bonington Gallery.
New signage outside the gallery and a more publicly-engaged exhibition programme this year reveal a new ambition to make the gallery more accessible to the general public than hitherto. The gallery recently took part in the exhibition Since 1843: In the Making, which celebrated the 170th anniversary of the university’s School of Art & Design, and a full programme of exhibitions is lined up into 2015.
“The gallery is committed to providing a creative platform for new concepts, debates and collections, and to strategic partnerships locally, nationally and internationally,” said Professor Duncan Higgins, who chairs the gallery’s curatorial committee. “Cummins’ exhibition exemplifies the growing status and creative quality of the exhibitions we are hosting. This is a powerful and culturally relevant exhibition.”
Cummins’ journey into the energy issue began when he saw a painting of Staythorpe Power Station, near Newark, Nottinghamshire, in the catalogue for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The painting, by war artist A.R. Thompson, RA, attractively portrayed the huge power station amid a relaxing nature scene of water, trees and swans. The painting’s impressionistic style and combination of soothing nature and polluting power station immediately struck Cummins as “wrong” on many levels but inspired him to begin researching Britain’s post-war energy policy.
When he found the photograph of the nuclear control room from 1963 it struck Cummins that there were similarities of composition between the picture and Vincent Van Gogh’s portrayal of poor agrarian workers in The Potato Eaters, which was completed in 1885.
That painting helped to shape Cummins’ aspirations to subtly explore the distances in time and poverty between the past and the technology-rich nuclear promise of post-war Britain.
Personal history also plays a part in the show on several levels, not least the fact that Cummins’ own father was a nuclear scientist who had a role in establishing the causes of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986.
“I remember sitting on Chesil Beach in Dorset with my father and looking at the waves,” says Cummins. “We would discuss whether the energy in the waves was moving up or down or pulsing towards us. For my father art and science are linked in that they both address a sense of wonder about the physical world. Although I have a kind of ‘future nostalgia’ for the middle 20th century today I think that neither art nor science can operate in isolation. I don’t know what the answer to our energy problems is, but if we together with scientists are to provide the solutions then I think we all have to be more socially engaged.”
Britain’s first nuclear power station, Calder Hall, began operating in 1956. Between then and 1976 ten more nuclear power stations were built, producing up to a third of Britain’s electricity. All the reactors in this first wave of nuclear power stations have now been closed down or decommissioned. Britain now has nine nuclear power stations producing 19% of the country’s electricity. Sites for eight new plants, to be built by 2025, have since been identified.
Sean Cummins gained a BA (Hons) in Fine Art from Manchester Polytechnic in 1981 and an MA Fine Art from Goldsmith’s College in 2000. He has taken part in many solo and group shows in Britain, Austria, South Africa, Hungary, Poland, New York and Rome. He also helped found the Gasworks gallery and studios in Vauxhall, London.
The Potato Eaters Discover Cold Fusion can be seen between March 12 and 28.
The Bonington Gallery, Dryden Street, Nottingham NG1 4GG, is open Monday – Friday 10 am – 5 pm