Artistic exploration for Sellafield’s future
News 12th March 2020
Three sculptures, developed as part of research exploring potential post-decommissioning end states for the Sellafield nuclear site, are being exhibited in Cumbria this month.
In the coming 120 years, how can humans decide to dismantle, remember and repair the lands called Sellafield? This is the question posed by x=2140, the exhibition by Cumbria-based artist Wallace Heim which launched recently at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont.
The exhibition was developed following a series of workshops, held in Whitehaven, for The Beam’s Sellafield Site Futures project. These workshops explored what the Sellafield nuclear site could be, mean or do once decommissioning and environmental remediation has finished in 120 years’ time.
The interdisciplinary project aims to stimulate debate about the societal, technological, ecological and aesthetic possibilities for such places in the future. As part of provoking this debate, anthropologist Petra Tjitske Kalshoven decided to work with an artist: “One major question that came up at the workshops was: How do you take action in a state of uncertainty? I’d like to think that this exhibition is a form of taking action, a moment where we are allowed to view things differently.”
Over the 120 year timescale there will be five human generations who must each make decisions affecting the future whilst operating within uncertain ecological, political, technological and economic conditions.
Wallace Heim, whose work spans sculpture, theatre design and philosophy, developed three sculptures in response to this. She explains: “I came away from the workshops thinking that all the usual procedures for decision-making will be inadequate for the importance of the decisions and actions needed over this timescale.
“The three sculptures are devices or ‘fonts’, objects that prompt solitary reflection and communal gathering, sources for thinking about a decision outside the everyday with its usual, demanding procedures.
“They are full with representations of different kinds of knowledge – the scientific, the technical, the cultural and the kinds of knowledge that are outwith the human. I intended them to prompt questions of what kinds of knowledge need to be saved, or lost, buried or protected in addressing the legacies of contamination. How do we make sure that what happens is not concealed?
“For me, the core of these pieces is the more philosophical questions of how to care for the lands, the soils, waters, elements, airs and living beings as they shift and migrate and settle over these coming generations of transformation and uncertainty.”
Wallace worked with University of Manchester PhD researchers to include elements of their research in her sculptures, including sediment used to investigate treatment techniques for the removal of radioactive contaminates from the Sellafield subsurface, and images of cement under a scanning electron microscope that are part of an investigation into the impact of biological reactions on low level radioactive wastes.
Reflecting on the exhibition, Petra said: “In the research that I have been doing on nuclear decommissioning in West Cumbria, I have been fascinated by the different materials that play a role in environmental remediation: radionuclides, of course, but also materials that are impacted upon by radioactivity, such as concrete.
“One of the intriguing bits about the exhibit is a close engagement with materials and surfaces (including soil, lead, moss, cement, wood, plastic, shells, clay), how these have been inscribed by Wallace (showing river beds, animals tracks, nuclear trajectories) and what role they might play in the story of this specific place as it evolves over time, into an unknown future. It really provokes the imagination!”