Forty Years of Asbestos Protest Art  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Decades after it was created, the work entitled Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism (1978)1 was being readied for installation by staff at the Tate. On October 16, 2019, British-born artist Conrad Atkinson2 was in London to supervise the hanging of this piece acquired by the museum in 2007. The fact that the constituent parts included asbestos – along with paper, polythene, metal, plastic and card – necessitated both remediation and conservation work; as per health and safety regulations, some of the elements were sealed in Perspex boxes to make the asbestos items safe to handle.

In email exchanges in 2018 the artist explained the genesis of Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism:

“The concept really just grew from the research I did. I met people suffering from mesothelioma and the lung shapes were developed to accommodate the research material. There was a lot of hostility in the art world to my technique and subject matter. The Socialist Worker critic praised it as a new direction for visual artists as did The Morning Star but Bernard Levin in The Times said I’d poisoned the wells of art and that I’d never felt the beat of a butterflies wings on my cheeks (this latter was true).

There were fascinating areas in the piece: a man in Barking who took me into his garden in a council estate built on the site of an asbestos factory. He put a spade in the ground and turned it over and it was pure blue. He then pointed to his red roses on a bush and said look closer the red roses had blue flecks in them.” 3


Storage boxes for the constituent parts of Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism.

Since it was purchased by the Tate, the artwork had been stored in three large plastic boxes; assembling the work consisting of dozens of artefacts, documents, photographs, pieces of correspondence, automotive parts and other items was a logistical challenge. The technical team used faded photographs of the installation and the original numbering to do so but sought advice from the artist regarding the lay-out and details such as the type of lettering to use to restore the word “BLUE” where deterioration of the original letters had occurred.

Although I had previously seen photographs of the piece, the scale and colors of the work made quite an impact when viewed in person. Having researched and written about UK asbestos issues for over 30 years, it was quite powerful to see references to people who had been at the forefront of the country’s fight for asbestos justice, including in particular Nancy Tait – the founder of the first asbestos campaigning group: Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases (SPAID) later renamed the Occupational and Environment Diseases Association (OEDA).4 Letters sent to her by government agencies, memos she had written warning about the hazard posed by chrysotile (white) asbestos and letters with her distinctive signature which featured in Atkinson’s installation are now no longer simply constituent parts of a work of art but historical documents. Forty years on, the stories of ordinary people like Henry and Mary Vaughan who had suffered fatal repercussions from asbestos exposures at work and at home continue to resonate. Despite having banned asbestos in 1999, 5,000 Britons die every year from asbestos-related diseases.5


Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism as assembled on October 16, 2019 at The Tate (Enlarge image)

During the afternoon consultation between Conrad Atkinson, Deborah Cane – the Tate Conservation Manager for Sculpture and Installation Art – and members of the museum’s technical team, we had the opportunity not only to inspect the results of their recent efforts but also to examine some residual texts which included a forty year old document by the artist headed “Asbestos” in which he stated:

“This piece [Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism] must be viewed as more than a sketch but less than a completed statement or solution.

On one point I am convinced, that the T.U.C., Nancy Tait, and others are right when they advocate the phasing out and complete banning of asbestos. I fear however that the industry, which is a powerful one, is engaged in a cynical ‘holding operation’ in the knowledge that in 25 years the reserves of asbestos will run out and in about 10 to 15 years revenue and resources will be more positively directed towards alternative substances. I think that had a Windscale Inquiry been held on the Asbestos Industry in 1906 the answer would have been no to development. Radioactivity is easier to control and monitor than asbestos even on purely technical grounds. The main link between the iron ore miners and the asbestos workers like Henry Vaughan is simple and unequivocal; there is no employer to sue… in the case of Henry Vaughan, the interval between diagnosis and death was simply too short to begin proceedings even had he known he had a prescribed industrial disease. Industry then, has bequeathed this to his wife: after a lifetime [of] work he was to die in an extremely distressing and painful manner.”

During the afternoon, Maria Jane Balshaw, Director of the Tate art museums and galleries, stopped by to greet the artist. I took the opportunity to urge her to make this piece available to the public by hanging it in the Tate. As the Museum’s schedule is planned at least two years in advance and as the Tate has gallery space to exhibit only 10% of its collection at any one time, it may take some while for this to happen.

Asbestos was a theme to which Conrad Atkinson returned at several points in his career. In 2016, he provided the central image for the cover of the 100th commemorative issue of the British Asbestos Newsletter. Explaining the concept for the cover image, the artist said:

“I wanted to find a different approach… an optimistic approach to an extremely serious subject. As the ‘Official Artist of the US campaign to ban landmines (Vietnam Veterans Trust),’ I had to find a way to draw attention to this horror, to reengage a community with ‘compassion fatigue’ who were mentally editing out images of limbless children used in several campaigns. With the same attitude I’ve tried to draw attention with this cover, to use different images to convey the problems of asbestos. It is astonishing that forty years after I first met Nancy Tait, asbestos continues to pose a serious threat to human life. While the use of production and sales of landmines was banned under the Ottawa Treaty (1999), global sales of asbestos remain unregulated.”6


Cover of the 100th Commemorative issue of the British Asbestos Newsletter; central image provided by Conrad Atkinson.

The artist’s first piece to reflect on asbestos-related issues came about in response to a request from The Serpentine Galley (London) for a work for an upcoming exhibition. Having been raised in a mining community in Cumbia, Atkinson had an awareness and interest in industrial diseases. In 1977, he created the 13 panels for the piece called “No Compensation,7 later acquired by the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. The mixed media collages looked at the human reality of pneumoconiosis, silicosis and mesothelioma – the signature cancer associated with asbestos exposure – reflected through the prism of Cumbrian iron ore miner Billy Hunter’s “struggle for justice through photographs, official documentation and fragments of iron ore.” 8

Mr. Atkinson has never shied away from sensitive social or political issues and throughout his career has challenged assumptions about the public role of art, tackling subjects such as landmines, thalidomide and Northern Ireland as well as asbestos. Describing his work, Mairtin O Muilleoir, Lord Mayor of Belfast (2013-14), Finance Minister of Northern Ireland (2016-17) and Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (2014-)9 wrote:

“Conrad Atkinson was to pop art what the Sex Pistols were to punk rock: the first to the barricades, the rebellious iconoclast, the knife to the gut. Only a super artist like him he could have taken on that most kryptonite of subjects: Britain’s corrosive role in the North of Ireland. And yet he did so with a swagger and a derring-do which outraged the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. 40-plus years on, it’s worth noting that his compelling love letters from Ireland have been vindicated by peace talks, ceasefires and a power-sharing parliament. And they say art can’t save lives. It did here, courtesy of Conrad.”

The sooner the Tate can schedule the installation of Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism, the better. With no end in sight to the epidemic killing thousands every year, this forty-year old piece is highly significant; it speaks to a populace which has become complacent about the hazard in the decades since asbestos was banned. With the Health and Safety Executive – “Great Britain's independent regulator for work-related health, safety and illness” – paralyzed by a thousand cuts, the Government impotent in the face of the Brexit crisis and widespread contamination of the educational infrastructure, public buildings and private homes, Atkinson’s work could, if given the chance, once again save lives.

October 21, 2019


1 Asbestos.

2 works of art by Conrad Atkinson are in many national collections including those in: the British Museum, the Australian National Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Tate Gallery (London), the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) and the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum (Moscow) as well in more local institutions such as: the Middlesbrough Art Gallery (UK), the University of Cumbria, Derry Civil Rights Museum, the Wolverhampton City Art Gallery etc.
Artist Page: Conrad Atkinson.

3 Email from Conrad Atkinson. December 6, 2018.

4 Kazan-Allen, L. Thirty Years on the Asbestos Frontline. September 25, 2019.

5 Kazan-Allen, L. Asbestos Life and Death in Brexit Britain. Part I. British Asbestos Newsletter. Issue 105, Autumn 2017.
Kazan-Allen, L. Asbestos Life and Death in Brexit Britain. Part II. British Asbestos Newsletter. Issue 106, Winter-/Spring 2017-2018.

6 British Asbestos Newsletter. Issue 100, Spring 2016, 2016.

7 Khong, E.L, Postcard from Middlesbrough. August 24, 2017.

8 Wade, C. The Politics Of Extraction: Art Of The Liquid Crystal Display. June 8, 2019.
Also see: Iron Ore.

9 Wikipedia. Máirtín ó Muilleoir.



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