Martin Vincent gets a preview of Give Battle in Vain, the last exhibition by a very reclusive artist.
April 29 1999
Doria Hemming died last November, the radioactivity that accompanied her birth in Hiroshima the day the bomb was dropped finally taking its victim from the inside, through the medium of intestinal cancer. Hemming's birth into the nuclear age was the source of all her art, and her last project bears fruit in the Centre for the Understanding of the Built Environment (Cube), on Portland Street, with an exhibition structured around the British nuclear deterrent. Hemming directed the work whilst being temporarily holed-up in Manchester's very own nuclear bunker, on her many incognito visits to the city.
The bunker is often talked about, with a certainty that leads most of us to believe it must exist, but few have met anyone who's actually been down there. It takes the form of a tunnel running from Salford to Ancoats, and is named Guardian. The entrance is located opposite Cube, in an anonymous-looking brick building on the edge of a car park. Cube director Graham Russell says it's not just the proximity that gives it relevance to Cube. "It's part of the hidden architecture of Manchester's hidden environment," he explains, but goes on to admit: "To be honest I think the tunnel itself is quite boring. What's interesting is the way it's used as a metaphor in this exhibition, a launchpad to explore post-war nuclear culture."
Hemming was contacted by a research team made up of two artists, Professor John Hyatt and Tracey Sanders-Wood, and a nuclear historian Doctor Stephen Twigge. "We never met her but she sent us e-mail and faxes telling us what to do," says Hyatt. "The structure of the exhibition comes from the fact that the British nuclear warheads had names like 'Red Snow', 'Orange Herald', 'Indigo Hammer', 'Violet Vision,'" Hence the exhibition's title, derived from the childhood mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow.
"There are seven colour stations," continues Hyatt, "based on these names. Hemming's idea was to use Manchester's link with computing and breaking code - through Alan Turing and the Enigma Code. Each section has a poem made up of anagrams of the missile name, by Sanders-Wood, and from these anagrams were created the futile visual poems of war."
Hyatt indicates the Indigo station, which includes a cow hide stretches across the wall. "It's based on the leakage from Sellafield in 1957. There's a bottle of indigo milk, and this is a really bad joke: What did the cow do when she ate indigo grass? - Mood indigo."
Each station includes an accumulation of artefacts, both found and made, and an i-mac computer. There's a video of Hemming's life story and there's even a genuine air-to-air missile. Within this elaborate world it's hard to disentangle fact from fiction. "The life story Hemming gave us turned out to be somebody else's life, taken from History Today Magazine, so she's lied to us about that. We don't even know if she/he is really a man or a woman."
While the exhibition was being put together, the latest war broke out in Europe, and though it's a cliche it's worth restating: In war the first casualty is truth
Give Battle in Vain, Cube until 28 May