The Scholar Stones Project: Exhibition Review

The Scholar Stones Project’ by Yelena Popova at The Holden Gallery

Written by Hazel Maria Frances

Photography by Nicole Mullan


A scholar stone is traditionally a pretty limestone hunk that is valued by Chinese scholars for being asymmetrical, resembling mountain landscapes, or making a nice sound when hit. In history these rocks may have sat on a scholar’s desk or been the focal point of Chinese gardens. Today they might be lot number 83 at the auction house.

Yelena Popova’s scholar stones however are more like morbid souvenirs from the surrounding landscape of decommissioned nuclear power plants around the coast of the UK. Her solo show neatly fills one room, consisting of 19 canvases, one installation-come-sculpture and two tapestries. Popova’s concerns with the landscape and nuclear waste don’t scream their urgency at you, more like beckon you seductively. By being so visually tempting, the work reveals a dark underbelly: a reality that exists now, never considered by most people, barely comprehensible by our limited perception of time.

On the available floor map, each work is labelled with its name, correlating to where Popova collected the soil which forms the natural pigment of 19 paintings. At first glance, the paintings (some rectangle and some small circles) are just some sepia abstraction. I’m reminded of the latte I just bought, milk and coffee swirling together. If not for the anchoring booklet to look down on, visually there isn’t much to chew on. The impatient gallery goer might not realise however, that these are individual portraits of place.

‘Using’ says Popova ‘the most primal (and primitive) painting materials’ such as wood-ash and soil, the ‘post-petrochemical’ paintings are attempts to ‘revisit medieval painting recipes and techniques…’ The more I read Popova’s rational and eloquent explanation of her paintings, the more I feel as if I enter the world she is creating. With no concept of human lifespan, they are a message gently speaking from a knowing and wise place. A higher consciousness even, that witnessed the first humans and their intrinsic instinct to mix pigments and make art on the walls of caves.

Each painting is layered with precise movement, a ‘gradual building up of gesture’. Perception changes to seeing the ghosts of these places, Snowdonia, Suffolk, Gloucestershire, Anglesey, Hastings. Death masks of a landscape tainted forever, evidence of a mummification. The Magnox nuclear reactor, which sits decommissioned on each place Popova collects her soil, must remain in its location for 80 years before it can be dismantled or moved. The half-life of the man-made contaminated graphite core within each reactor is approximately 5000 years. The thread which extends as far back as cave painting techniques, through to now, then into the future 5000 years, is near to incomprehensible. The span of human intelligence from painting bison on walls, to eventually creating nuclear power, puts this day, or any day, into grim perspective. What will be left of the earth in 5000 years?

The space itself is unusual. For students at MMU it acts as a hallway, as a place to pass through on your way to somewhere else. I find this to have a poignant relevance to the work in the show. The gallery in a way replicates the places Popova has walked through to gather these stones. A passage through time as much as space, the exhibition is not suggesting anything of static nature, despite the stillness of the room. Time marches on.

Central to the room is the installation ‘Stone Display’. 15 of Popova’s handpicked scholar stones stand on black plinths of varying height, on a grid of laser cut interlocking shapes. The display structure echoes a graphite core nuclear reactor, with MDF adapted from ‘gallery leftovers and ex walls.’ The structure is versatile in the way it can be constructed depending on the stones and the gallery space. The black futuristic assemblies that hold the stones bring each one into grotesque detail. Following Popova’s hashtag #scholarstonesproject gives each stone a place of origin and Popova’s personal reaction to it. The stones become alien-looking modernist sculptures. They appear to be a shrunken Neolithic arrangement, or a cultish worship circle. A cylindrical stone looks like the offcut from a large drill.

The middle cluster sits on small square stacks of black boards. They look like the skeletal frames of skyscrapers being built, ever visible now in Manchester’s skyline. A simple human act of approaching a pretty stone or taking one from a beach is universally understood. The new aesthetic dimension that ‘Stone Display’ opens comes tinged with some haunted feeling. These stones once sat within walking distance to abandoned nuclear structures. Huge aberrations on the landscape, perfectly situated between land and sea, that functioned to produce our huge demand for power. Could they be contaminated? The now defunct power plants are not the subject of this work, however. In a selfish way, I choose to ignore the context and just look at the pretty stones.

In the same way, ‘Keepsafe (I and II)’, I feel is best enjoyed on a simple aesthetic level. The two large Jacquard woven tapestries sit where Edward Burne Jones’ ‘Adoration of the Magi’ did in 1894. Patterns at once refer to the structure of a first-generation Magnox reactor, and to a spiral pattern found on Neolithic stone carvings, as described by Popova in the exhibition booklet. The thread weaves together vast histories and suggests the future of nuclear equipment that is unimaginable. Another ancient process: the tapestry is synonymous with wealth and decoration, the wall hangings of palaces. The space created by the overlapping lines, the illusion of some neo Russian constructivist poster, perhaps a modernist vision of a utopian city. Popova describes her idea of the architectural plans for mausoleums, likening these structures to the decommissioned reactors. The cold, dangerous, dead thing that they are meant to represent is opposite to their hopeful colours. Their name ‘Keepsake’ speaks of a past no longer existing. The natural and thriving habitats these reactors sit on will be affected by them for thousands of years. Yet, we can just keep looking at the pretty tapestries.

Popova invites us to share her process. Provided in the exhibition booklets is all the information needed to fully understand her concerns, with lots of lovely pictures too. Worth a visit for this little booklet alone, ‘The Scholar Stones’ exhibition, and her continuing #scholarstonesproject are active and invite us to observe her practice and learn with her. Often inviting residents on guided tours around the landscape occupied by these plants, she opens discussion about Britain’s nuclear future, and the vulnerability of our landscape, and challenges our human understanding of time and permanence. She is herself a member of The Nuclear Culture Research Group. Leaving, I feel a weight of realisation. The reactors I did not know existed an hour ago, could outlive our whole civilisation.

The Scholar Stones Project‘ by Yelena Popova is on at Holden Gallery from 7th February – 27th March. Free entry.

Our guest writer Hazel Maria Frances is a second year Art History and Curating student at MMU and works in the Merseyside Maritime Museum and Touchstones Rochdale. Most concerned with contemporary art in the North of England, Hazel writes reviews with a sense of humour that make art accessible for everyone. ‘Art dies when we stop looking’.

Our guest photographer is Nicole Mullan. A documentary photographer who’s work mainly focuses around themes of time, place, memory & performance.

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