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Get the Geiger counter! The Scholar Stones Project – review | Art and design

Up and down the UK, stern concrete structures stare silently out across the sea. Behind barbed wire fences in a blossoming natural landscape, these decommissioned first-generation nuclear power plants are now untouchable tombs for the graphite reactor cores that can’t be moved for 80 to 100 years. Though these quiet buildings look like remnants of the past, there is much life behind their sealed doors; the half-life of the manmade contaminated graphite, carbon-14, is approximately 5,000 years.

On Christmas Day 2018, artist Yelena Popova took a stroll along the Suffolk shoreline, a short distance from the Sizewell nuclear power stations. Born in Ozyorsk, Russia – a closed city that was the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme – Popova started to question the invisible impact of these energy houses, hidden in plain site. On the same day, she collected the first stone for the Scholar Stones Project now on display at the Holden Gallery in Manchester.

Decommissioned Sizewell A nuclear power station, left, and active Sizewell B in Suffolk.

Untouchable … the decommissioned Sizewell A nuclear power station, left, and active Sizewell B in Suffolk. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Scholar stones (also known as gongshi) are naturally weathered rocks that often act as the focal point of a traditional Chinese garden. Initially defined by the Tang dynasty as an object that encouraged contemplation, Popova’s scholar stones are taken from the sites of decommissioned Magnox power reactors around the UK to make tangible the very real impact that nuclear energy production has on the ground under our feet.

The collection of stones – which Popova curated after visiting seven different reactors – now stands at the centre of the Holden on a black floor that mimics the geometric design of the early reactor’s graphite core. Laser-cut from recycled material from previous exhibitions, the thin spread of circles and squares stands in direct contrast to the core that will still be making its mark on the environment until the end of this century.

the stones Popova collected from Britain’s nuclear sites.

Core values … the stones Popova collected from Britain’s nuclear sites. Photograph: Ben McDonnell/Courtesy of Division of Labour and l’étrangère

With some stones raised on chunky plinths and others placed on the floor, the individual stones stand as markers for the power plants from which they have travelled. Every variance in colour, shade and shape refers back to the different communities that live alongside the reactors, from the Highland Scots clinging to the blustery northern coast in Dounreay to the Welsh in Trawsfynydd cradled by the sweeping arms of Snowdonia. Like the pieces of ground now positioned on plinths, the inhabitants have internalised the reactors; they have become part of their history and landscape.

Popova also scooped up soil from the nuclear sites to create her own pigments for a new series of paintings. The swirling canvases move from warm earthy hues to dusky greys, reflecting the varied geological composition of each location. Ghostly layers remind us of the radioactivity still haunting these sites decades after nuclear activity was officially concluded. In the exhibition notes, Popova wonders what would happen if she slid a Geiger counter over the surface of each painting.

Ghostly … a painting that uses pigments made from collected soil.

Ghostly … a painting that uses pigments made from collected soil. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

These captivating and ethereal canvases suffer from being placed in what is essentially a large walkway to other rooms and corridors in the Manchester School of Art. Two bold tapestries have more impact as they rise off the centre of the back wall. Positioned where there had once been a large tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones, Keepsake I and II appear initially as a pleasing kaleidoscope of geometric shapes and bright colours. On closer inspection it becomes evident that the lower half of each tapestry contains the repeating pattern of the granite core, while the top half is an imposing building. Popova’s scholar stones congregate before the tapestries, paying their respects to the fearsome reactors entombed beneath triangular architecture evocative of the pyramids or Lenin’s mausoleum.

Nuclear energy has always been about power, whether that be the power to sustain your nation or the power to blow others apart. And when the first round of reactors arrived in the UK, no one was sure which was the greater need, so they ensured the stations could also produce plutonium-239 for nuclear weapons if necessary. But if Popova’s collection of worshipping stones tells us anything, it’s that we are kidding ourselves if we think we are holding the power. When we consider that there is still no clear plan for the deconstruction of the graphite cores, the UK’s nuclear waste storage facilities are only in the planning stages and the production of miniature nuclear reactors has become necessary to retain knowledge of how to maintain the old versions, we seem about as powerful as a stone sat atop a plinth.

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