Activists Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland – who recently threw a can of tomato soup at a Vincent Van Gogh painting in the National Gallery, London – speak about their fight for the future
On Thursday 13 October, two young climate activists, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, threw a can of tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (1888), sparking outrage among the British media, especially on the right. Their protest – staged in front of a painting protected by glass – was designed to draw our attention to the severity of the climate crisis. As they point out in the following interview with frieze editor-in-chief, Andrew Durbin, the protections we extend to works of art have not been extended to most of our planet and nearly everyone living on it. Why are we so immediately horrified, and galvanized to action, at the thought of a destroyed painting, but not a ruined world?

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Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland at the National Gallery, 2022. Courtesy: © 2022 Just Stop Oil

Andrew Durbin: Why use an artwork to stage a protest?
Anna Holland: Because it was a piece of massive cultural value, because, as a result of that, people are finally talking about our message and our demands. So far, we’ve seen 33 million people in Pakistan displaced by apocalyptic floods, 36 million have had their lives absolutely ruined by the famines in East Africa. Yet, all it took was two young people to throw soup at a painting to get people talking more than they have done in such a long time about the climate crisis.
Phoebe Plummer: And using such a beautiful piece of artwork was poignant because, when people saw it, they had that gut reaction of, ‘I want to protect this thing that is beautiful and valued.’ Why don’t people have that same response to the destruction the fossil fuel industry is causing to our planet and our people?
AD: From the beginning, you understood that the painting was behind glass – and protected. Was there a reason you selected the Van Gogh? Had you considered other masterpieces?
AH: We had originally planned to throw soup at Andy Warhol purely for how meta it would have been, but, as Phoebe said, it’s such a beautiful, iconic piece of work. And Van Gogh himself was a penniless artist. He lived and died in debt. If he’d been alive today under this government, he would have been one of those people who, this winter, would be forced to choose between eating or heating his home. 
PP: Van Gogh said, ‘What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?’ I’d like to think Van Gogh would be one of those people who knows we need to step up into civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. And the painting was behind glass, the painting was protected, but right now, millions in the global south aren’t protected, future generations aren’t protected. As young people, our own futures aren’t protected.

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Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland at the National Gallery, 2022. Courtesy: © 2022 Just Stop Oil

AD: The history of art is the history of provocative gestures. Usually, when artists and activists upset people in the art world, they’re on the right track. Were you thinking about the history of protest in formulating yours?
AH: Absolutely. We use non-violent direct action tactics, which are methods that have been used in almost every successful civil resistance campaign. We take inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragettes, the queer movement. I’m sure you’re aware that the Suffragettes used to slash paintings as a form of protest. Our method of just throwing soup at the glass is a less violent gesture than that, but I like to think just as attention-grabbing. 
PP: We’re both queer people. And the reason we’re able to go to university, the reason we’re able to vote, the reason we’re able to someday marry the people we love is because of people who have taken part in civil disobedience and non-violent direct action before us.
AD: Can you tell me a little bit about the structure of Stop the Oil? How do you determine where and when you protest?
AH: We’re currently in civil resistance against our government. They’ve been trying to approve over 100 new fossil fuel licenses, which will kill us. We can’t sustain one new fossil fuel license, let alone over 100. So, for the past month, and continuing onwards every single day, we’re going to perform acts of civil resistance against our government and we’re going to disrupt everywhere in London, every day, until they meet our demand of no new oil.

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Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland at the National Gallery, 2022, film still. Courtesy: © 2022 Just Stop Oil and Rich Felgate

PP: We meet at 10 Downing Street at 11am every single day. There are acts of civil resistance going on all over London and that will continue until the government makes a statement that they will halt all new fossil fuel licenses.
AD: Do you see your work as intersecting with any other movements in the UK and abroad?
AH: Just Stop Oil is a coalition of movements that is formed under just this one project of bringing an end to the oil industry. We have people acting across the world under the Just Stop Oil name and other names, such as Last Generation in Germany, Save Old Growth in Canada, Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain. There really is a massive world-wide movement building. We feel so privileged and inspired to be part of this.
PP: There is crossover with other groups because the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis are unique in how unifying they are. This is going to affect everyone, and it’s going to affect minorities first and worst. Right now, in the global south, people are already facing the harsh realities of climate change more than we are in the UK. And it is the wealthy who have done the most to cause this.

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Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland at the National Gallery, 2022, film still. Courtesy: © 2022 Just Stop Oil and Rich Felgate

AD: What should our readership know about the future?
AH: That unless we fight for it, unless we start acting like we’re in the emergency that we are, there’s no future to look forward to. It’s a horrible thing to say to people and it’s a bleak thing to think about, but that is the truth, as it stands. As Phoebe said, in the global south, people are struggling – they are fighting for their lives every single day – and that is the future we all must look ahead to, if we don’t win this flight.
PP: The reason I’m part of Just Stop Oil is that I’m terrified of my future. I’m terrified I’m going to be denied the right to grow old, I’m terrified that I’m going to live in constant fear of climate disaster, I’m terrified that I won’t have access to food or clean water. Our generation doesn’t have the luxury of sitting on the side-lines, because our futures are at stake.
Main image: Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland at the National Gallery, 2022, film still. Courtesy: © 2022 Just Stop Oil and Rich Felgate
Anna Holland and Phoebe Plummer are members of Just Stop Oil, an activist group demanding an end to government funding of fossil fuel projects.
Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. He lives in London, UK.
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