Exclusive: We spoke to the former Manchester Uni student who threw soup on Van Gogh’s art

‘I think Van Gogh would’ve supported the method of non-violent, direct action’

Last Friday, two people entered the National Gallery in London and threw two tins of tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers painting. The artwork, created in 1888, is reportedly valued between £72-74 million.

One of the protestors was pink-haired Phoebe Plummer, 21, who studied maths and computer science at the University of Manchester before terminating their studies at the end of the last academic year. Since leaving Manchester, they have become involved with the environmental activist group Just Stop Oil.

In the aftermath of the events, The Manchester Tab spoke to Phoebe about their actions and the motivations behind them:

“There have been roadblocks every day, with brave people putting their civil liberties on the line and getting arrested,” Phoebe says.  “But, it hasn’t had the media attention that we need to draw people’s focus to what really matters.

“There are 33 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan and thousands dying of starvation in Somalia caused by drought, yet, it took two young people throwing soup at a painting to get people talking about the climate crisis more than all of these lives that have been destroyed as a result of climate disasters.”

Phoebe explains to The Manchester Tab they chose Van Gogh’s artwork not simply because of its notoriety but also due to the artist’s own personal circumstances. They believe Van Gogh would’ve supported the activism.

“Van Gogh was poor and underprivileged in his lifetime and this winter he would’ve been one of the people who would’ve had to choose between heating and eating,” they say.

“Van Gogh said, ‘what would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?’, I think that he would’ve supported the method of non-violent, direct action.”

The activism has split opinion throughout the world with some people believing targeting artwork is not the right method of protest. However Phoebe stresses: “We knew that the painting was protected so there would be no damage done. But, right now people in the Global South aren’t protected. As young people, our futures aren’t protected.

“The Suffragettes didn’t just throw soup at paintings, they slashed paintings in the National Gallery. It’s a proportionate response.

“We needed to get people talking about the climate and cost of living crisis and that there are solutions, yet the government is refusing to act. We have eight years’ supply of oil in reserves, yet Liz Truss is still pushing forward with over 100 new fossil fuel projects planned.

“Currently, fossil fuels are subsidised 32 times more than renewables, even though renewables are nine times cheaper,” Phoebe argues.

“We did this because these actions shock and give that feeling of ‘oh my god, that is something beautiful and valuable, why are you damaging that? It needs to be protected’. Where is that same reaction when it is our planet and our people who are being damaged and not protected?”

Just Stop Oil has “one key demand” says Phoebe, that “the government halts all new fossil fuel licenses” and said “acts of resistance” will continue until the government agrees to this.

“We’re not saying the whole world needs to stop using oil tomorrow, we’re saying that we need to make a just and fair transition to green energy.

“Why am I so passionate? Because as a young person I am terrified of the future we’re facing. Right now, it’s not a matter of science but political will that is missing to make the changes we need.

“I want readers to know that we (Just Stop Oil) are normal people. We are students, vicars, lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. We are just normal people who are terrified of the future for ourselves and our families.

“Sir David King, the former chief scientific advisor, stated in 2021 that what we do in the next three to four years will determine the future of humanity, we don’t have any time to waste.

“The reason we use civil disobedience is that history has shown that it works. I am here today as a queer person and the reason I am able to vote, go to university, to marry, is because of people who have taken part in acts like this before me.”

via Just Stop Oil

For students in Manchester who are concerned about the same issues, “Manchester has an amazing Just Stop Oil branch that hosts educational talks regularly,” Phoebe says.

“I would urge interested students to attend a talk and learn more about the climate and social science behind this,” they add.

“You can support us in many different ways. You can get involved with civil disobedience, but there are also support roles, where you can act as liaison to protestors leaving prison and court. They are met with food and hugs and support. You can also help with outreach projects such as leafleting and postering.”

In response to their critics, Phoebe says: This isn’t a popularity contest, we’re making change. If you’re upset at us, I’m not asking you to like me, but where is that anger directed towards the government and the corporations that are right now denying us our right to a future.”

“The head of BP said earlier this year that he has more money than he knows what to do with, why aren’t you angrier at him?”

Protestors Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland are due to appear in court on 13th December, charged with criminal damage to the painting of the frame, to which they have pleaded not guilty.

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Featured image credit via Just Stop Oil.