Artist Susie Johnston uses oil rig in exhibition to ‘prompt debate’

Artist Susie Johnston. Picture: Contributed
Artist Susie Johnston. Picture: Contributed
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THEY FORMED part of the behemoths of the North Sea oil industry, made from tonnes of steel and were almost indestructible.

But now Scottish artist Susie Johnston who discovered a massive rusting oil wellhead in a Perth scrap metal yard has transformed it into the centrepiece of an exhibition to prompt debate about the future of crude oil industry.

Earlier this week oil giant BP, which had been targeted by a number of protests by climate change protesters, ended its 34-year sponsorship with the Edinburgh International Festival, citing the “extremely challenging business environment” for its decision.

Johnston, whose solo exhibition ‘Disquiet’ runs until 8 May at Fire Station Creative in Dunfermline, says she was stopped in her tracks when she suddenly spotted the wellhead which she later discovered had been depth-charged from the North Sea using explosives.

• READ MORE: North Sea oil and gas ‘must not waste a good crisis’

“I just thought ‘what on earth is that?’ I was looking at this amazing rusted object, a bit of engineering but was not sure what it was”, said Johnston, a recent graduate from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee.

Further research revealed the well-head had lain in the yard for over a decade since being decommissioned.

Because of its weight, Johnston worked on painting the wellhead at the yard, owned by explosives expert John Kettles who runs Blast Designs specialising in dealing with past-their-shelf high explosives. A number of months later it was transported by crane and trailer to the gallery,a former fire station, opened by artist John Byrne last year.

Called ‘Leaves of Three - Let them be’ shows the wellhead, consisting of three concentric pipes, which had been part of the drilling system for pumping crude oil from below the seabed, hand-painted in oils to show poison ivy - which the artist says is a metaphor for the dangers of fossil fuels.

“Here was this beautiful piece of industrial history but I wanted to find a way of showing what I felt about the fossil fuel industry.

“I feel very uncertain as to aspects of ‘truths’ we are fed about global warming. We can’t continue to rely on fossil fuels, the future is definitely in clean energy, but we have this strong dependency on the fossil fuel industry.”

• READ MORE: Budget 2016: Plea for North Sea oil tax breaks

Other works featured include ‘Pierced’ consisting of a number of First and Second World War shells which the artist says show the “disconnect” between the items used by the Ministry of Defence to protect people and “how other people are going to die.”.

Dr Richard Dixon, director, Friends of the Earth Scotland, said Johnston’s work would “spark debate” about how to move to cleaner fuels while taking into account the effect on jobs for those dependent on the sector.

“In a week when we have seen a much valued cultural institution break free of fossil fuels, it is apt that this artist has chosen to highlight the dangers of our continued addiction to oil and gas.

“Extraction and burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change and we need to keep 80 per cent of known reserves in the ground if we are to keep warming below 2degrees C.

“Scotland’s communities, individuals and authorities need to begin the much-needed conversation about how we transition away from dirty energy like coal, oil and gas to a cleaner, safer future. Hopefully, this exhibition will spark debate about how to achieve this in a way that is fair to workers and areas currently dependent on these high carbon industries.

“Scotland will need to decommission plenty of oil well-heads if we are to do our fair share to tackle climate change so there will hopefully be lots of similar canvases for Susie Johnston to work on.”

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