Excerpt from an interview with Lizz Brady and Kirsty Harris
LB: What are your paintings about?
KH: The decisive moment, a meditation on a split second.
That split second iconically representing our race to self destruction.
The beauty and awe of the landscape, the dust, the glow, the force of the explosion.
The myths surrounding characters in this masterplan to kill ourselves off.
The fight for survival.
We’ve shown ourselves THE END.
I make work stretching a wide range of media - large un-stretched oil paintings on linen, household bleach on paper, oil on glass, audio works, , cyanotypes, short films, ceramics and silverpoint drawings on oak blocks - all based around the imagery and data collected on the atom bomb.
My un-stretched paintings on linen, depicting nuclear tests, are vast and confrontational. Moments of manufactured violence radically disrupt the desert landscape. In Charlie (2017) 112 x 69" each square inch of linen represents 4 tons of TNT – which in turn is the unit of measurement that denotes the yield of the explosion.
My glass paintings and delicate silverpoint drawings aim for a quiet sense of unease, to harness the beauty and fragility of the chosen medium, capturing ginormous, fleeting moments of history in a consuming and meticulous manner.
I make cyanotypes after an old photographic process discovered in 1842 appropriating negatives from my silverpoint drawings and paintings. I mix up the chemicals, paint them onto the paper and then expose the image under the sun; the largest example of thermonuclear fusion in our solar system.
To further mine the psychological threat these nuclear tests still hold I started an ongoing audio piece in 2013:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying (1945-2021) was created in conjunction with a group of musicians. The composition is a musical account of every officially recorded nuclear explosion detonated between 1945 and the present day. With over 2000 explosions, each different instrument represents a country that partook, each month in history lasts a second on the recording and each note depicts a single bomb.
This work is shown in different scenarios including the piece 'Cold Call, 2019' -
A 1950s rotary telephone rings intermittently and when answered plays the audio piece Cold Call (How I Learned to Stop Worrying 1945-2019). The piece passes through periods of relative calm building up through chaotic peaks of activity and back down again.
Moments from a Chinese government’s propaganda film are isolated in my framed works on paper. Here bleach is used as an oxidising agent, the mark making eradicating the colour and only becoming fully visible minutes after the brush has left the paper. Inside a plinth the miniature projection entitled The Victim, shows a decommissioned Yak-11 endlessly turning like a trapped animal in the desolate landscape of the Lop Nur Desert. Its parts are picked off chaotically by the forces from the blast wave.
I was born in 1978 in Nottinghamshire and raised in Yorkshire. I live and work in London, graduating from the Sir John Cass School of Art, in 2002.
Solo exhibitions include: 'A Foul and Awesome Display' Vane Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne, (2019) ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying’, CFCCA, Manchester (2016).
Two man shows include: 'Women Walked Onto the Base Last Tuesday, with Carol Harris, Indo, London (2016) 'Paradice Lost' (sic) with Stuart Robinson, Plymouth Art Weekender, (2017)
Group shows include: 'Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019' Huddersfield Art Gallery and ASC Gallery, London (2019- 20) ‘Field Study’, The Auxiliary Warehouse, Middlesbrough (2019) ‘Rules of Freedom’, Collyer Bristow Gallery, London (2019), Love and Rage, Barbican Arts Group Trust, London (2019) ‘Strange Love’, Bankley Gallery, Levenshulme (2018) ‘SOLO Award 2018’, Chiara William' Contemporary, London, ‘POWERCUT’, SET Project Space, London (2018), ‘Phantom’, Ruskin Gallery, Cambridge, ‘Paradice Lost’, Plymouth Art Weekender (2017), ‘Liberate yourself from my vice-like grip’, Islington Mill, Manchester (2016).
I was co-curator of ‘WIMMIN II' in October 2019 as part of Art Licks Weekend.
I am the co-founder of Come Quick Disaster (with Henrietta Armstrong) and share a studio with her at Chisenhale Arts Place, London.
I am on the steering comitee for Broken Grey Wires, an arts and mental health organisation in Manchester.
My work is held in public and private collections in the UK and abroad including The National Atomic Testing Museum, Nevada, USA, The Peace Museum, Bradford, UK and The Museum of Everything (a collaboration with Margaret Frethey)
Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
As a child, Kirsty Harris attended CND rallies with her family. Inspired by a protest image of Thatcher and Reagan, etched on her young mind by a poster that hung in the family home, they would call to Ban the Bomb. As an adult, Harris marvelled at a painting of a cloud by Gerhard Richter in the Tate. She began to investigate the possibilities of figuration by looking at clouds and cloudscapes, wondering if there was another way to depict the landscape. These two seemingly unrelated experiences brought her to the essence of her artistic practice.
All of this led Harris to a remarkable conclusion: there is beauty in brutality, and brutality is to be found everywhere in man and nature, where striving and the fight for survival are necessarily taken to extremes. Harris’ work focuses that moment when nature becomes the collateral damage in humanity’s last resort: the nuclear bomb, for Harris, represents a sublime form of nihilism in which victory – over the enemy and over reason – is negated by its means. This gives rise to art which captures the quiet, brooding awe of the unspeakable power of obliteration.
There is a sense in Harris’ work that nuclear warfare is less of an assault on nature than it is an act of nature turning in on itself. Man, as the most advanced and privileged members of the animal kingdom, is using the sciences to demolish nature from within, as if the world’s ecosystems, of which humanity is only a component, are bristling with energy that overflows in the service of human dominance. After all, an explosion is nothing more than the laws of physics and chemistry behaving as they should, so the vast cloud of smoke that rises in the wake of the bomb is nature itself at its most incendiary. One is reminded of Heidegger’s fourfold of earth, sky, divinities and mortals: the bomb expresses the difficult unity of the fourfold as a metaphor for human endeavour and striving – mortals, in their quixotic quest for divine powers, build a bomb that closes the gap between the earth and the sky in a cloud of radiation.
Harris makes cyanotypes of bomb clouds whose translucent quality evokes the otherworldly enormity of the explosion, giving the cloud a supernatural glow as it permeates the landscape and turns all matter into vapour. The differing contrasts of light and dark pick out details that would otherwise be lost to the naked eye, while the acetate on which they are printed highlights pockets of emptiness. The cyanotypes are derived from tiny, immaculately detailed silverpoint drawings that are scaled so that one square millimetre represents a tonne of TNT in the particular bomb depicted. This rigorous approach to capturing the character of a given bomb conveys the power of the explosion in the most discrete detail, creating a stark contrast between the delicacy and finesse of the medium and the majestic horror of its subject. This approach does not quite humanise the bomb, but it does suggest a redemption for humanity in that its wickedness – ultimately directed upon itself – can be turned to aesthetic advantage.
The aesthetic of the bomb reaches its pinnacle in Harris’ paintings, where it is evident how she considers the depiction of the bomb as of a piece with landscape painting. Paintings on glass in blue and pink abstract the bomb from its reality into a deceptively decorative item, but also make the plumes of smoke appear as apparitions consuming the landscape. A large painting on linen is such a riot of luscious colour that you forget that it is an image of the end of the world. The point of these works seems to be precisely to demonstrate how art can render beautiful even the most uncompromising realities. Here there are traces of Richter’s cloud as a formal device for framing the explosion in the landscape. The paintings are classical in composition and possess the aesthetic of any great landscape – as if touches of Turner pepper Harris’ sense of colour and motion – but they portray a very modern concept and a very contemporary set of anxieties.
In stark contrast to the fine art aesthetic of painting and drawing, Harris has also produced short films, which are comprised of found footage from United States government archives. These films of test bombs Able and Baker, the first to be detonated after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convey the gravity of nuclear war: the preparation by military personnel is cold, clinical and exacting, then the clouds rise and the world becomes a blank screen. In these tests, pigs and goats were used to replace military personnel on the bomb ships, and you can’t help confronting the terrible sense of meaningless sacrifice as those animals are herded to their gruesome end. Suddenly, this is not art any more, but real life – and the most extreme, self-destructive real life humanity can muster.
It is here that the crux of Harris’ whole project reveals itself. The counterpoint between the sheer horror of the films on the one hand, and the artistic beauty of the paintings and drawings on the other unfurls some deep, uncomfortable truths about art and its relationship to life. In art, these bombs are still, inert images, valued for their aesthetic power and ability to move through sensation and intellect; but in life, they are weapons of mass destruction that threaten apocalypse. Art – if it is to succeed as an aesthetic phenomenon – cannot grasp the ultimate terror, for if it does it ceases to be art and becomes life itself. Harris’ real triumph here is to capture the inherent beauty of the bomb while not betraying the moral responsibility to acknowledge its pertinent threat to everything we hold dear.
Painting and drawing the bomb is Harris’ reconciliation of her childhood forays into politics and her artistic reconsideration of the landscape, but it is also an urgent plea for humanity to save itself from itself. There is always a conceptual gap between art, which is aesthetic sensation, and the world it represents, which is lived experience: here that gap is the horror of the consequences and abiding logic of the bomb, which is aestheticized in art to the point that it dislocates art from life. The gap between art and life is precisely the void in which, as Kurt Vonegut said, ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’.
But it is important to be able to confront the reality in that gap in art, which Harris forces us to do because the beauty she extracts from brutality is both beguiling and unbelievable. It leaves us with the sense that there must be something behind this image of a cloud of smoke, and when we find it we discover that it is the fullest expression of man’s will to destroy himself. Harris raises an important question when she asks why we would want the capability to destroy ourselves, and of course there is no satisfactory answer, so that making art about this existential threat becomes the only answer there could possibly be.
The fight for survival in nature is brutal and humanity is only the most advanced form of that brutality, and the nuclear bomb is its last and highest parting with reason and virtue. With such an all-consuming threat as the content of her work, Harris might not be able to stop us from worrying, but with so many skilful, humane and provocative iterations of her subject, she might just be able to teach us to love the bomb as only an artist can.