Words by Jessica Peace
PAUL, YOU’VE BEEN PLANTING PANSIES AT THE SITES OF HOMOPHOBIA FOR ABOUT 13 YEARS NOW. TELL US ABOUT THE MOMENT YOU KNEW YOU WERE GOING TO GET OUT YOUR TROWEL?
It was three separate incidences of homophobia in one day that drove me to create The Pansy Project. I was surprised that people around me were shocked that homophobia still happened. It was something that I had just got used to, but three times in one day, angered me, I was saddened that this was the world I lived in. I believe that the function of the artist is to draw attention to the issues that interest us, so the injustice of homophobia was the original drive. After some research the idea just fell into my head. I wanted my work to be a gentle response to the violence.
WE HAVE BEEN PLAYING YOUR SHORT FILMS OVER AND OVER... WATCHING THE PANSIES QUIVER AT THE EDGES OF PAVEMENTS AND BUSY ROADS. DO YOU OFTEN REVISIT THE PANSIES ONCE THEY’VE BEEN PLANTED?
When I planted those first pansies thirteen years ago I did, as they were on my daily route. Now I plant pansies for other people, all over the world, this doesn’t happen so easily. The main focus, is capturing the pansy in its location and using the photograph or video to tell the story of the experience.
THE PANSY IS NOT ONLY USED AS A DEROGATORY TERM TOWARDS GAY MEN BUT IT’S NAME ALSO STEMS FROM THE FRENCH VERB, ‘TO THINK’; USING THE PANSY SEEMS TO ASK THE VIEWERS AND PARTICIPANTS TO REFLECT BUT ALSO DISPLAYS THE ‘LACK OF ‘THOUGHT’ IN CASUAL HOMOPHOBIC SLURS, ABUSE AND ATTACKS?
‘Lack of thought’ is a nice way of putting it. I often think that the casual almost flippant homophobia I mark is the perpetrator having a lack of a filter. They momentarily forget societal norms and blurt out what they’ve observed, in my case my (or others) sexuality.
What you’re suggesting perhaps is that I’m putting a ‘thought’ where there was none. The marking of violence is different. This I think is the presence of a violent reaction to a person’s sexuality. I considered altering the ‘ritual’ where violence occurred, though it’s the simplicity of The Pansy Project that I think works.
DO YOU THINK THE PLANT WORLD OFTEN THROWS US GUIDES AND METAPHORS?
I’m really fascinated by the way we impart meaning onto the world around us, from birds to plants, from a crow being seen as harbinger of doom to the funereal lily these are all arbitrary, and western ways of creating symbolism. Similar to how horticulturists categorise what is a weed, and what is not. The natural world does not concern itself with such things, it just is.
YOUR ILLUSTRATED BOOK, PANSY BOY IS WRITTEN TO YOUR ‘SEVEN YEAR OLD SELF’, HOW DO YOU FIND TIME TO SPEND WITH NATURE NOW?
As a child I loved nature, my grandfather and his wife Jenny, encouraged this, they were keen birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts, the books they bought me inspired my love for the natural world.
Pansy Boy consolidates my childhood interest and current work into one place. I still love seeing birds and when I travel I adore seeing local birds, I was thrilled to see a bald eagle in Kansas in the spring. In London it’s a little trickier to connect with nature, though I’m quite enjoying the growing population of the ring necked parakeets, despite the potential environmental impact, that is still to be determined.
More of the same, I think, I continue to plant pansies for others around the world, further locations are in the pipeline. I’m continuing to develop the film side of The Pansy Project and I hope to develop Pansy Boy into a short animated film.
This is a challenge, though as I approach the fourteenth year, I will continue to explore other ways of creatively responding to The Pansy Project.
PETAL, PALM OR POTATO?
I have to say ‘petal’ - when I first started thinking about using the pansy I thought that it was a meek insignificant little flower, it didn’t fill me with inspiration. Now I adore it, it has the capacity to appear robust and architectural, its versatility and strength have become the perfect muse for me.
This is a complicated one, artistically I’ve been inspired by Derek Jarman and Felix Gonzales-Torres by the poetry of their work and their use of public space. In horticulture my step mum, Barbara Harfleet, she worked with me and my brother Tom on our Gold Medal winning RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show Garden, (The Pansy Project Garden) and when we worked on our garden at Chelsea, Barbara created the planting scheme.
She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, way beyond mine and has an amazing garden in Surrey.
FAVE FLORAL SPACE?
Kew Gardens, I’ve been going there since I was a child, it features in my book, I drew a portrait of one of the peacocks there.
I’ve always loved it, I remember going as child and feeling vertiginous staring up at the Pagoda.
Coffee, life without it, would be intolerable.
FINISH THE SENTENCE: ‘PLANTS ARE…’
Plants are the planet, we would not exist without them. They’re essential, vital and impossible to live without.
Pop it in someone’s stocking?... Pansy Boy
Click here for the The Pansy Project films …Ooh, and the Pansy Boy animated trailer, we adore this.