Saturday, July 31, 2010

Flames in the Air (February 2nd, 2008)

These pictures were taken at a mid-winter fire sculpture exhibition--the Nights of Fire--at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto. The sculptures were created by the French "fire art troupe" Cie Carabosse. The show involved 1500 individually-lit clay pots which burned for a period of about three hours in the early-evening winter darkness.

One thing I loved about the look of this show, and the pictures I was able to take, was the contrast not only between light and darkness but also between the fire in the air and the ice of winter on the ground. And of course as I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I have pyromaniacal tendencies--so there was a special lure here for me.

Though the sculptures were of many different shapes and sizes, I liked best one particular, relatively simple spherical piece (see below). I'm not sure if it was the size and shape of it or the placement at the front of the Square, but I loved the way this piece looked from a distance as one approached the main area of the exhibit or "fire garden". And I wasn't the only one--people seemed drawn to the piece, and indeed there was something both welcoming and hypnotic about the globe of tiny pots, flowering flame.

Why do I enjoy fire so much? Well--I've always felt that there's something 'primal' about fires, and particularly the act of gathering as a group around the fire, which conjures up the state of human existence as it was until very recent times. The several millennia of recorded human history--and the few million years we took to progress to record-keeping--are really just a spark in the long, dark corridor of the aeons, wherein even the earth's several billion orbits around the sun are reduced to a few scratches in the grand cosmic tally-count. Until a short while ago much of humanity still sat literally huddled around flames that brought vital sustenance; and today we continue to rely heavily on technologies that duplicate the functions of fire. Rubbing my hands in front of the flames, I'm reminded of all this.

So fire has had an important role in human society and culture more or less from the beginning. Testament to its importance are the many human myths and legends involving the 'discovery', or indeed the theft, of fire (usually from a god or supernatural figure--as in the Maori myth in which Maui, the 'trickster'/demi-god, steals fire from his grandmother Mahuika). Fire also plays an important role in religious or sacred rituals around the world--even in their modern-day, areligious incarnations--often signifying celebratory purification and rebirth.

Above: As onlookers, to me it seemed as if we were indulging in an age-old flirtation with controlled danger. This is another of the seductions of fire--it seems like a living thing, in fact it even breathes, sucking oxygen from the air as it burns. But while these things help to explain the fascination that fire holds (for me and for many others), it's partly the element of unpredictability, of the unexplained itself, that makes fire worth watching.

The picture above shows a kind of brazier, in this case it looked like charcoal burning in an upright metal vessel. I really like the effect of the light (sparks) in the picture. Another version of this technology is the censer, which you may recognise if you have visited a Catholic church for Mass; it holds hot charcoal on which incense or frankincense is burned.

Below: fire lights the way, as well as providing functional heat.

That we see fire as both a technology and a force of nature (often characterised in the past as one of the fundamental 'elements' of life) is also a tension that shows in the stories we tell; it represents something that is part of the natural world, but which has the potential to be 'summoned' to perform for our benefit. The lessons learned in our stories are often similar: while we may feel we have 'control' of fire, we should always remember that fire has a 'will' of its own, and that mastery of it can only ever be temporary, even though it appears to do our bidding from time to time.

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