More activists are gluing themselves to art. Their tactics aren’t new.

Richard Feldgate
Eben Lazarus and Hannah Hunt are glued to “The Hay Wain” area at London’s National Gallery in July.

When Eben Lazarus and Hannah Hunt showed up at London’s National Gallery in July armed with glue and hidden Just Stop Oil T-shirts, they didn’t come to look at art. But five minutes before they glued themselves to the frame of John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” and called on the British government to stop new oil and gas licenses, they paused in front of Diego Velázquez’s “The Toilet of Venus.”

It was not Velazquez’s soft brushstrokes that drew them in but an edgier story they had heard about the 17th-century work. In 1914, Canadian suffragist Mary Richardson attacked the painting with a hatchet, slashing the figure’s back and hips, to protest the arrest of a fellow activist and condemn the work’s misogynist imagery. Richardson’s act inspired so many copycats that some British museums temporarily banned women from visiting.

Looking at the painting, Lazarus felt swept up in a bigger history of civil disobedience. “It was this surreal connection to those who had come before us and fought for basic rights that we now take for granted. It just solidified our conviction in what we were about to do,” he said. “It was actually quite a peaceful moment.”

Shortly thereafter, Lazarus and Hunt covered “The Hay Wain” with a poster showing a chaotic, apocalyptic vision of the English countryside and glued themselves to the original work’s frame. Kneeling on the floor of the gallery, Lazarus cried out, “When there’s no food, what use is art? When there’s no water, what use is art?”

That day, the pair joined the notable annals of an idiosyncratic protest movement that sounds more like a Dada-inspired performance piece. In the past few months, activists around the world have been affixing themselves to the frames and glass coverings of artworks – a Picasso in Australia; a Botticelli in Italy; a Raphael in Germany – and demanding their governments stop supporting the fossil fuel industry. In early October, Just Stop Oil activists threw soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery before gluing themselves to the wall beneath the work. And on Thursday, climate activists targeted Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” at a museum in The Hague, with one man gluing his head to the glass covering and another affixing his hand to an area just outside the frame. A tactic borrowed from street protests, the glue increases the time protesters have to deliver their message from what, in an instant, can become an international stage.

These Super Glue subversives have been derided as publicity-seeking Philistines and hailed as martyrs for a vital cause. But lost in the noise is the reality that these acts are part of a long history of protest in museums. That activism has reached a fever pitch in recent years, with protesters calling on institutions to rethink their collections, diversify their staff, return looted artifacts and expunge toxic donors. At a time when museums have become ground zero for rewriting narratives of the past, it should be no surprise that climate activists have also turned to them in hopes of rewriting the future.

Western museums have long presented themselves as objective keepers of history and sanctuaries, separate from current events. This is, of course, an illusion. In the 1960s, artists like Hans Haacke started creating works that directly challenged museums themselves, sparking a movement known as Institutional Critique, which would go on to include works by Andrea Fraser and Louise Lawler.

Haacke’s famous “MoMA Poll,” made during the Vietnam War, asked museum visitors if the fact that Gov. Nelson Rockefeller – once president of the Museum of Modern Art – had not “denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy” would dissuade them from voting for him. For another work meant to critique the divide between art and the outside world, Haacke set up a telex machine to print live news updates on a seemingly endless paper scroll.

Speaking about the work in a 2008 interview, Haacke said, “What concerned me at the time and what is still important for me today is that people coming into a gallery, a museum, or another art exhibition venue, are reminded that these art spaces are not a world separate from the rest of the world. The world of art is not a world apart.”

Climate activists have embraced this thinking. Through their actions, a John Constable painting becomes more than some escapist countryside fantasy – it becomes a poignant reminder that the natural landscape is endangered. Pablo Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” doesn’t just show history, it warns of war and famine that could come with a warming Earth. And Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera” isn’t about celebrating the beauty of spring – it’s about mourning the biodiversity we are at risk of losing.

Leonardo Basso, a 23-year-old student in Padua who helped Ultima Generazione activists with planning before they protested in front of Giorgione’s “The Tempest,” says these actions give renewed power to art. “If we just keep that art locked in the museum, and we don’t do anything with it but show it to some paying customers who post it on Instagram, then art just becomes like the coffee we get at Starbucks,” he says. “The art is still available to us. We need to use the art.”

Kirsty Robertson, a professor at Western University and author of “Tear Gas Epiphanies: Protest, Culture, Museums,” sees parallels between activists like Basso and the Situationist International, an anti-capitalist group of artists and thinkers active from 1957 to 1972. The group’s slogan, “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Beneath the pavement, a beach”) gets at the logic behind gluing yourself to a painting: Scrape the varnish off the status quo and you’ll find something better below.

Like the Situationists, today’s protesters are “using this act of disruption to jolt people out of their normal, everyday lives,” Robertson says. The setting amplifies the shock. “What’s so special about museums is that they are this point of contact between a wealthy elitist history and the public,” she says. “The artwork is an emergency button.”

Beka Economopoulos, the Not An Alternative co-founder and activist behind the push to remove climate change denier David Koch from museum boards, sees this movement as part of a “continuum” of arts-focused climate activism that includes organizations like BP or Not BP and Liberate Tate. Recent economic strain – including England’s cost of living crisis – gives these buzzy actions depth, she says.

“We just see the value of art going up and up while low-wage workers and communities are having a harder and harder time making ends meet. Our values are topsy turvy, and that is brought into stark relief in a museum setting,” she says. “It’s not attacking the sunflower painting as much as it is attacking something that can symbolize the deep violence of an economic system that creates extreme wealth and extreme poverty.”

Critics say these activist groups aren’t challenging museums, they’re just using them as particularly sensational soapboxes. BP or Not BP gave witty, Shakespearean-style performances and Liberate Tate did creative art actions – including faking an oil spill on the museum floor – all to ask British institutions to stop taking money from Big Oil. But the groups gluing themselves to paintings and riding their fame to headlines don’t have such tangible demands for the institutions they occupy.

When protesters stage actions in museums, “you’ve got to ask yourself the question, why are you in a museum? What are you saying to the museum?” says Emma Mahony, a professor who studies museums and activism at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. She praises Liberate Tate for bringing art lovers to their side and worries that the super-gluers are pushing away potential supporters. “You’re not going to make friends with oil bosses, but you have to bring the 99 percent onboard if you want to achieve something.”

While Lazarus insists Just Stop Oil isn’t trying to be popular, at the National Gallery over the summer, he took pride in bringing at least a few people onboard. As he and Hunt walked into the gallery where “The Hay Wain” hung, they saw a group of schoolchildren studying a painting nearby. They stopped, unsure whether to go through with the protest. “I think it was just because of that tendency to protect children,” he said. “But, actually, they deserve to know the truth. Everyone does.”

As they finished their speeches, the children – who are more likely to face the harsh realities of the climate crisis than many of us – erupted into cheers.