Artist Paul Harfleet was inspired to start The Pansy Project six years ago after experiencing three separate instances of homophobia in one day in Manchester. Although only verbal attacks, Paul felt the crimes should be marked in some way.
“I was thinking about the locations and how they would always trigger the memory of that incident,’ says Paul who was studying for an MA in Fine Art at the time. “I thought a plant might be a nice way to mark it and a pansy was obvious, because it had that connotation of gayness.” It also fitted in with Paul’s own artwork at the time, much of which was concerned with place and identity.
Paul continued to plant the pansies around Manchester, in places where he had heard of homophobic abuses or attacks. He took photographs of he started to photograph them and place them on his website. He gave them provocative titles relating to the abuse, such as “I think he’s a queer, let’s kill him” in St Ann’s Street in Manchester or “Fucking Faggots” in Belfast.
“I wanted the pansies to be invisible, like the abuse,” Paul explains “I was interested in roadside memorials and how they change peoples perceptions of a place. As soon as you see that, you think what has happened?”
Since those initial plantings Paul has positioned approximately 10,0000 pansies in different contexts all over the world. The tiny pansies are planted in innocuous places, because this is often where the crimes take place. In the photographs however the pansies are shot in such a way as to dominate the foreground.
Paul is very careful about where he plants and tries to be as respectful to the victim’s families as possible. He spoke at a memorial for Ian Baynham who was tragically killed in Trafalgar Square two years ago. Paul however, decided against any guerrilla activity of his own, especially whilst the case was been heard. He has however been in touch with Ian’s sister and together they would like, at some stage, to make a symbolic planting, perhaps even on the fourth plinth. “It’s a big idea and would need lots of arranging but for the time being I’m giving it some distance.”
Paul did plant a pansy in commemoration of 18-year-old Michael Causer who was murdered in Liverpool in 2008. He met with Michael’s mother Marie in April 2009 and together they planted a flower on the spot where Michaels body had been dumped by his three assailants. He continues to stay in touch with the family, aware that his planting comes with a certain responsibility to those affected by such traumatic events. On his blog, Paul describes the vulnerability of the Pansy he has planted amongst the urban flowerbeds. “Pansies generally don’t last long though they are self-seeding and are surprisingly hardy which is quite interesting.”
In 2007 Paul took part in a debate with Metropolitan Police officers as part of The London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. For that event Paul also planted 3,000 pansies along the Southbank to commemorate David Morley ironically a survivor of The Admiral Duncan bombing in 1999. He was killed on Hungerford Bridge in 2004 by a gang of local youths.
Paul still believes that the media doesn’t really pay enough attention to these types of attacks. He describes how Michael Causer’s family could not believe the lack of attention their son’s murder received. “Generally in the media it’s OK to be gay and there is this feeling that the battle has already been won,” says Paul, “The reality is that people are still being killed.”
The obsession with gang-based knife crime can, Paul believes, overshadow homophobic attacks, which are part of a more disturbing trend of hate crime generally. The most worrying aspect Paul believes is the fact that these crimes are in the main, being carried out by young people, suggesting that homophobic abuse has become accepted in the playground rather than eradicated.
In late 2010, Paul travelled to Istanbul, researching his experiences as part of Liverpool’s Homotopia Festival. Whilst there, he received anecdotal evidence about homophobic attacks in a country where one Government minister recently stated that homosexuality is some kind of biological disorder. Paul planted pansies within the grounds of the British Consulate and also in Taskim Square, despite the attention of on-looking Policemen.
Turkey’s neighbour Iran was also the subject of an installation entitled ‘Hanged’ Paul created in Iceland in 2008. The exhibition was in an art space called Egilsstaðir or ‘slaughterhouse’ in east Iceland as part of the Reykjavik Arts Festival. Alongside meat hooks Paul mounted a drawing of two teenagers, Mahmoud Asqari and Ayad Marhouni who were publicly hanged in ‘Justice Square’, Mashhad, in Iran in July 2005 for engaging in homosexual behaviour. The stark images contrasted with Paul’s trademark pansies planted at the entrance to the building.
Considering the challenging nature of much of Paul’s work it was perhaps surprising to see him enter the 2010 RHS Flower Show at Hampton Court with his brother Tom, a respected garden designer in his own right. Over four thousand pansies under-planted a ruptured concrete sculpture, which symbolised the disruptive nature of homophobic hate crime. It was a perfect mix of skilful, colourful planting and strong theme and won the pair not only a Gold Medal but also the prestigious Best Concept Garden Award.
Following on from that success The Pansy Project has received a lot of attention though it is still very much a one-man mission. “People assume The Pansy Project is an organisation,” says Paul “I get e-mails from people wanting to speak to my marketing department he laughs “I have to explain sorry it’s just me.”
“As soon as Facebook happened people could comment and so that has become a really important element.”
It is also a platform for people to share anecdotes, which Paul can then follow up at a later date, as was the case with one US blogger, who recalled the murder of a friend over a decade ago. After getting in touch with the writer, Paul planted a pansy on the spot where the crime took place in New York.
Paul’s various projects make him hard to define, he is an installation artist, guerrilla gardener, blogger, photographer, therapist even. However he is happy with that ambiguity, “Its nice to be somewhere in between” he says, “fundamentally though I am an artist and the photographs are a part of that artwork.”
Despite being so articulate on his subject matter Paul does not wish to be seen as an agitator, “its very easy to get on your soapbox and I think that puts people off, I see myself more as an accidental activist.” The neatness of the idea has attracted attention from Gay activist groups some of whom wanted to use the pansy as a symbol. However Paul was keen to stay true to the original concept, believing the planting works best in the street reclaiming the abuse, drawing attention to its ignorance. “The Pansy Project is a metaphor for how people interact generally on the streets, its meant to open up discussion not close it down.”