17 April 1998

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.
A Children's Rhyme

To my colleague artists David Kremers, Mike Tyler and Jouke Kleerebezem.
To the members of the board 'Beelden op de Berg'.
To Wim Koops, Department of Radiation Safety, Wageningen University.
To Prof. van der Heide, Chairman of the Radiation Protection Commission, Wageningen University.
To Ronald van Tienhoven, Fred Wagemans, Govert Grosvelt, Tom van Gestel and Arjen Mulder.


Yesterday was a day of shock. I was informed that my project for the exhibition ST(*)boretum, planned to open in the arboretum of the University of Wageningen in 3 weeks, would not be allowed to take place. The reason for the ban? The word "uranium".

The decision to stop my work was made by a special commission from the university, and was completely unexpected. For months I have been told by Mr. Koops, the university officer in charge of radioactive isotopes that there was "absolutely no problem" in my using a small sample of uranium-238 in the work. Mr. Koops had even arranged for the sample. Thus I was prepared for questions from the public about the work but not this reaction from the university. I am shocked because the work is being banned not out of concerns about the material being used but because the university is fearful of an adverse public reaction. Fearful of the 'U' word.

The purpose of these notes is to set the facts straight about the situation and to raise some questions about the university's censorship of the work. Are they justified to take this action?


To begin, a description of how the completed artwork would appear:

The work, in a way, is a garden within a garden, a small garden placed within the larger arboretum garden. The garden measures 5 by 10 meters and is surrounded by a fence. The fence is modern, a construction of welded steel tubes, but designed to resemble an antique iron fence. The fence is 1.5 meters high and painted flat black. There is no gate - no way to enter the enclosure.

Looking through the bars one sees that the ground is completely covered with river gravel. Near the center of the enclosure rests a large stone boulder. The stone has obviously been chosen and placed with great care. It radiates simplicity and calm. There is nothing else in the garden. The overall effect is one of aesthetic contemplation.

There is, however, one other element contained within the garden. A chamber has been drilled in the underside of the boulder and a small sample of uranium-238 has been placed inside. Drawings and text concerning this detail are provided in a booklet accompanying the work - for the viewer both the uranium and the hole are invisible.


Why uranium?

Explaining art is not simple. Justification of the artwork is not the primary issue here.

Let me just say that from neither a scientific nor an artistic point of view is uranium inimical (hostile) to life. Uranium's spawn of 'decay daughters' is a creative process, a physical process mirrored in the biological division of cells, in the expanding and diversifying movement 'from one to many'. Uranium represents life not death. Life, like the universe, is constantly expanding. Life and the universe are driven by nuclear power. My 'barren' artwork is in fact a garden of eden. The uranium hidden within the work is a source of energy. In the garden within a garden rests a miniature sun.


I believe there are two points to be made clear about the nature of uranium. It is ubiquitous (everywhere) and it is safe - compared to other commonly used materials.

Uranium is ubiquitous. Uranium-238 is found everywhere on earth. It is considered a primordial radionuclide, left over from when the universe was created.

The planetary distribution of Uranium-238 is fairly even. There is on average 2,200 kilograms found in an area measuring 1 square mile by 1 foot deep (1.6 square kilometers by 30.48 centimeters deep).

Uranium-238 is found in higher than average concentrations in many of our common building materials: gypsum (gipsplaat), granite, sandstone and cement.

Uranium is radioactive. Our world is radioactive and has been since it was created. Over 60 radionuclides can be found in nature. The most important of these are carbon-14, potassium-40 and rubidium-87. Each of these isotopes are integrated into the 'biosphere' and permeate all forms of life including our own bodies. In other words, our bodies are 'naturally' radioactive.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines radioactivity as "the giving off of radiant energy in the form of particles or rays, as alpha, beta and gamma rays, by the disintegration of atomic nuclei." We are cautious about radioactivity because these particles or rays (like sunshine) can cause damage to our cells and to our genetic material.

Some particles and rays are more harmful to our bodies than others. And like sunshine, larger doses increase the risk. When we look at radioactivity it is important to consider the particles involved as well as the doses. Risks must be assessed in perspective - the potential health benefits of sunbathing are measured against the danger of cancer - so risks must be compared to the risks of other activities (smoking, driving a car etc).

Uranium-238 is classified by specialists as mildly radioactive (low risk) for two reasons: 1) it's extremely long half-life (4.47 billion years) means that its 'activity' is very low, and 2) uranium-238 decays by emitting alpha particles. Particles that can be stopped by a piece of paper.


So why do people fear uranium?

Uranium (in the form of the rare isotope-235) is used to fuel fission reactions such as the reaction that takes place in a nuclear power plant. Some of the radioactive products of these reactions are very dangerous - open exposure to some of these isotopes is very harmful to life.

Uranium is feared because it has come to be associated with reactors and bombs.


The university's reason for denying permission to use uranium in the work is because the university is afraid of a potentially adverse public reaction to the project.

As scientists they insist that the amount and type of radiation emerging from the uranium sample is in no way harmful. They even expect that there is more radioactivity emerging from the four and a half ton stone that I would be using than from the uranium itself.

The university is not afraid of uranium, it is afraid of the word 'uranium' and the negative associations that this word possesses in the media and amongst the public.


As I see it, the university has two responsibilities in this case.

1) Its responsibility to protect its interests and maintain its funding for the scientific research that it supports.

2) Its responsibility as a scientific and educational institution to provide society with accurate and and non-biased information.

The university is clearly choosing the former over the latter and avoiding a confrontation with public opinion - it is shirking its responsibility to tell the truth. But for how long can the university maintain its authority if it continues down this path?


What do you do as an artist when a work that you've struggled for a very long time to conceptualize and to bring into being is stopped - just before it is completed?

What do you do when you feel so excited about the work? When you are convinced that it is meaningful and important and good?

What do you do when you feel that the persons who are stopping your work are wrong? When you have the feeling that they have let you and themselves down by their quick and careless decision?

You become angry. At first you wonder about compromises. Then you become more determined than ever to complete the work as you originally planned it. Sooner or later. But as soon as possible.

Paul Perry

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