Not Art, But Bombs

Catalogue essay for the Atlanta College of Art Gallery retrospective

Cynthia Rose

Conrad Atkinson, now in his mid-fifties, is one of Britain's most influential artists. He speaks, teaches, collaborates, and exhibits around the world. But the heart of his practice - both tactically and metaphorically - comes from his birthplace, the northern town of Cleator Moor. Here, Atkinson grew up amidst Blake's dark Satanic mills, as well as local coal mines which claimed both lives and limbs. One of his earliest memories illustrates their seeming omniscience to area residents:

"When I was around four years old, we lived in a small terraced house. It was so close to the local foundry that, whenever our door was open, we could feel the heat. I remember my mother had two special squares of chocolate from the rationing. She put these up on a shelf and instructed me not to touch them. Of course, as soon as she left, I got a chair and I put a stool on top of it. Then, just as I was clambering up, there was a terrible blast. Over in the foundry, two men had fallen into a vat of molten metal. Only later, however, did I find that out. At the moment I was falling, I thought, "It's the wrath of God!"

This boyhood home also lies in the shadow of Sellafield, a nuclear power station designed to make weapons-grade plutonium. Yet, ironically, it is part of Wordsworth's West Cumberland. That makes it prime turf for the modern heritage industry, but its natural beauty once played another role in history. It was here that ties were forged between England's radical thinking and her Romantic vision - through the work of Wordsworth, Shelley, Ruskin and similar figures. For them, as the critic Raymond Williams once wrote, there was never opposition ''between attention to natural beauty and attention to government...a conclusion about personal feeling became a conclusion about society."

Atkinson's art very consciously continues their legacy, one he says he gained knowledge of through "a mining culture". In his life, much of that culture came from his grandfather, an iron-ore miner to whom learning mattered deeply:

"Miners decidedly did have a cultural life. They didn't just come home shattered and then go out boozing. Before I was five, for instance, my grandfather gave me books. I remember the first one I got was 'Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare'. At the same time, I was helping him paint the hammer and sickle. After his redundancy, my grandfather ran the local library - and got in a lot of books by the likes of Bernard Shaw."

Atkinson's artistic life has spanned countries, formats and cultures, but Cleator Moor remains its guiding influence. In attempting to carry forward its brand of social conscience, Atkinson has helped change what "British art" can mean. Now, in the era of Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread - of work filled by ideas, yet unconcerned with ideals - Atkinson and his work make the case for a different Britain. His is an Englishness still attuned to the radical past, to socialist morals and religious nonconformity. Yet it delights in change and displays great formal pleasure.


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