The Pansy Project is a floral silent protest by Manchester-based artist Paul Harfleet. Photographs of pansies, planted at locations of homophobic abuse, aim to confront unopposed and unreported instances of casual homophobia. These images, titled after the abuse itself such as “Fucking Faggot” and “I Think He’s Queer, Shall We Kill Him?” carry the artist’s hope that a small gesture can bloom into a powerful resistance against the daily mistreatment of queer people. I met Paul Harfleet to chat about the project’s origins and how this concept has grown.
Vada: Why Pansies?
Paul Harfleet: It was a warm summer’s day in 2005 when a string of homophobic abuse became the catalyst for this project. The day began with two builders shouting; “it’s about time we went gay-bashing again isn’t it?”; continued with a gang of yobs throwing abuse and stones at my then boyfriend and me, and ended with a bizarre and unsettling confrontation with a man who called us ‘ladies’ under his breath.
Over the years I had become accustomed to this kind of behaviour, but I came to realise it was a shocking concept to most of my friends and colleagues. It was in this context that I began to ponder the nature of these verbal attacks and their influence on my life. I realised that I felt differently about these experiences depending on my mental state so I decided to explore the way I was made to feel at the location where these incidents occur.
What interested me was the way that the locations later acted as a prompt for me to explore the memories associated with that place. I wanted in some way to manipulate these associations, In order to feel differently about the location and the memories it summoned. I became interested in the public nature of these incidents and the way one was forced into reacting publicly to a crime that often occurred during the day and in full view of passers by.
I had observed the tendency to place flowers at the scene of a crime or accident had become an accepted ritual and I considered a similar response. Floral tributes subtly augment the reading of a space that encourages a passer-by to ponder past events at a marked location, generally understood as a crime or accident; my particular intervention could encourage a passer-by to query the reason for my own ritualistic action.
However, I did not feel it would be appropriate to equate my personal experience of verbal homophobic abuse with a death or fatal accident; I felt that planting a small unmarked living plant at the site would correspond with the nature of the abuse: A plant continues to grow as I do through my experience. Placing a live plant felt like a positive action, it was a comment on the abuse; a potential ‘remedy’.
The species of plant was of course vitally important and the pansy instantly seemed perfect. Not only does the word refer to an effeminate or gay man: The name of the flower originates from the French verb; penser (to think), as the bowing head of the flower was seen to visually echo a person in deep thought. The subtlety and elegiac quality of the flower was ideal for my requirements. The action of planting reinforced these qualities, as kneeling in the street and digging in the often neglected hedgerows felt like a sorrowful act. The bowing heads of the flowers became mournful symbols of indignant acceptance.
Do you see your work as a way to combat homophobia, or as a way to help those who are affected by it?
Primarily The Pansy Project is an artwork and I believe that it combats homophobia and helps those that are affected it by it. The notion I believe that is at the heart of the project is that public displays of homophobia are just stupid, an almost ridiculous display of ignorance, which never ceases to amaze, anger or upset me. The fact that it can lead to violence and even homophobically motivated murder is astonishing and heart breaking. Still, even after working in this way for nearly ten years I am shocked by it.
Hopefully the project brings attention to the absurdity of homophobia. The thing I love about this idea is that it initially seems ridiculous, and ineffectual. It is absurd and surreal, often people laugh when they first hear me talk about it, though the more I explore and talk about it and the more it’s core message reaches people the more affecting The Pansy Project becomes.
From humble beginnings planting in overgrown, city hedgerows, your pansies are now being displayed in national flower shows. Is this an area in which you see your practice continuing to develop in?
The works I have made in response to The Pansy Project are often surreal, The Pansy Project Garden I made with my brother, Tom in 2010, was amazingly well received by the RHS, winning a Gold Medal and Best Conceptual Garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. This led to Tom and I collaborating again at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2013 which wasn’t directly about The Pansy Project, though it did enable The Pansy Project to get some primetime TV coverage and we won another Gold Medal which was amazing. I have also worked with Tatty Devine on a range of brooches and with London fashion label Bundy&Webster, the sweatshirts I made with them sold out. I see these projects as creative experiments or investigations in promoting The Pansy Project which also fulfil my curiosity as an artist.
I’m continuing to explore these collaborations, though I don’t think I’ll be doing another PansyProjectGarden anytime soon. I’m currently illustrating a book I have written which takes the form of a children’s book and explores The Pansy Project in a completely different way, it’s a fictionalised autobiographical origin story of The Pansy Project. I’m currently seeking out a literary agent and publisher and have begun sharing the first drafts, so it’s an exciting time and another chance to share the project with new audiences.
I also use social media to promote the project, by making campaign posters and sharing them with my growing followers. All of these strands of the project interest me, and enable me to attempt to get The Pansy Project to a wider audience than just a gay one. Though this has always been a struggle, as I believe the media largely believe the battle against homophobia has been won, in this country at least. The recent Winter Olympics in Russia emphasises the fact that there are still a lot of countries in the world where homophobia is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and even death.
I’m now pretty much accepting of the fact that I will always be planting pansies and exploring the potential of this little idea and taking it is far and wide as I’m able. The funny thing is, when I first had the idea, I wasn’t really that keen on pansies. Now I adore them, and know I will always be associated with them.
Find out more about The Pansy Project: